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Criminal Justice

Volume 449: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

Yesterday, I set out to the House our plans for transforming the Home Office, and I said that I would return to the House with two further sets of proposals, the first of them to rebalance the criminal justice system and the second to reform the immigration and nationality directorate. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall today present to the House the results of my review of the criminal justice system—“Re-balancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”—copies of which I have placed in the Library.

As I made clear in my statement yesterday, we are not starting from year zero. My predecessors and colleagues across Government have made substantial improvements in all aspects of the criminal justice system. The overall result of that is that crime is down by 35 per cent. since 1997. Offences brought to justice have increased by 27 per cent. to 1.27 million since 2002. There are more police officers on the streets than ever before. We have given local authorities tough powers to tackle antisocial behaviour in the battle to regain community space. We have also modernised legislation in areas such as asset recovery to ensure that organised criminals are hit where it hurts—in their pockets.

However, it is clear that there are still major issues to do with the way that the criminal justice system currently operates and—just as importantly—how it is perceived to operate. Too often, it appears that the criminal justice system is on the side of the offender—that it protects their interests and individual rights over those of the victim and the law-abiding majority. That has to change. All the proposals set out today have at their core the aim to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim and the law-abiding majority. They are set out in detail in the published plan, but I shall highlight a few of them to illustrate our direction and our intent.

We will put law-abiding people, victims and their communities first. When asked, only 36 per cent. of people say that they are confident that the criminal justice system meets the needs of victims, compared with 80 per cent. who believe that it is fair to the accused. We will take steps to redress that imbalance. For instance, we will reform the Parole Board so that all new members have experience of victims’ issues. We will ensure that in serious sexual and violent cases, there is a victim’s voice and decisions must be unanimous. We also aim to make violent offenders pay towards the health care costs of their victims, as offenders currently do for road traffic injuries, and to reform the law to make it easier for victims to sue offenders who later get a windfall.

We will act to prevent human rights—which are rightly held dear by all in this House—from being used by offenders to secure perverse outcomes that penalise victims and the law-abiding majority. In the 1996 Chahal case, it was found that the United Kingdom Government could not consider the protection of the public as a balancing factor when arguing the case for the deportation of a dangerous person. We believe that that goes against the fundamental principle in the Human Rights Act 1998 that individual and collective rights can and should be balanced against each other, and we are working with our partners in Europe to challenge that finding as vigorously as possible. We will also ensure, by legislation if necessary, that public bodies give proper priority to public protection when considering the individual rights of offenders. To support criminal justice agencies to counter misrepresentation and misuse of the Human Rights Act, we will ensure that criminal justice agencies’ front-line staff get practical advice and guidance to dispel myths about the Act, and we will introduce a new online legal hotline to help them to do so. In addition, we will prevent criminals from abusing the law by restricting the ability of the plainly guilty to be released on appeal due to procedural irregularities.

We also need a sentencing framework that gives the public confidence. We have equipped the judiciary with new powers to allow judges to detain serious offenders indefinitely for the protection of the public, and over 1,000 of them have already been used. However, we must do more to reassure the public. Therefore, we will end the automatic one-third discount given to those caught red-handed and who plead guilty, irrespective of the circumstances. We will also remove the automatic discount offered to those resentenced on appeal, and we will end the requirement that judges should automatically halve the minimum term when setting the earliest release date for those serving unlimited sentences. The Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and I will consult on options on how to achieve that.

We must ensure that offenders comply. People’s confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined when they see offenders deliberately flouting the rules. Therefore, we intend to speed up the recall to prison of those offenders who break the terms of their licence. We also intend to speed the return to court of people on bail who fail to attend by restricting the use of “warrants with bail”, and to implement a presumption against bail for those who abscond or offend while on bail.

Another key area in the plan that we have published today is the focus on gripping offenders in order to better protect the public. We have 19,000 more prison places than in 1997, and about 7,000 more serious violent offenders are behind bars. It is clear to me—and, I am sure, to many in the House—that there are people in our prisons who should not be there. They range from foreign nationals to vulnerable women to those for whom mental health treatment would be more appropriate. I do not consider that what we propose in the plan is about being tougher or softer; it is about being fairer and smarter and, above all, about better protecting the public against the most serious offenders. As we make available additional capacity, we will ensure that these new resources are focused on the serious, violent and prolific offenders who ought to be in prison—sometimes for longer than they at present spend in prison. So we will ensure that we have the places that we need to protect the public.

We are embarking on 900 prison places by autumn 2007. We will expand prison places by an additional 8,000 to keep dangerous offenders in for longer. To make more space in prison for a tougher approach toward the most serious crimes, we will send more foreign nationals back to their own country to serve their sentences; speed up the court processes, which will mean that those not yet convicted spend less time on remand; and make better use of tagging for people on bail for less serious offences.

We must also do more to tackle the most prolific offenders, including drug users. The report details how we are overhauling our priority and prolific offenders and drug interventions programmes, with tougher conditions, tougher enforcement and new follow-up assessments. We will also clamp down on serious offending through measures that include increasing the maximum penalty for carrying a knife to four years, setting an ambitious new target for seizing the assets of criminals, and increasing the private sector’s involvement in asset seizure.

For the vast majority of people, their world begins with what they see when they open their own front door, step into their own street and enter and move among their own communities. What is sometimes regarded as low-level offending and antisocial behaviour thus causes real harm, damage and fear. We must therefore ensure that we tackle this issue ever more efficiently, so that the public feel increasingly safer. To do that, I propose, among other things, to add to our present range of ASBOs by examining the provision of powers to close businesses that sell knives and spray cans to under-age consumers, as part of a major review of summary powers that we will publish later in the year. I also propose to introduce parental compensation orders in 10 areas from this summer to make sure that parents take responsibility for the damage that their children cause.

Finally, we need to ensure that all this is underpinned by a simpler, swifter and fairer system to support our rebalancing aims. My right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General and I propose to work with practitioners across the criminal justice system to speed up magistrates court and Crown court processes; to expand the use of conditional cautions issued by prosecutors, without the need to go to court; to develop bulk processing arrangements for simple non-contested cases such as TV licence non-payment; and to use a variety of approaches to speed up justice, such as live television link pilots between police stations and the courts, next day justice and taking courts closer to local communities.

Today’s plan is a comprehensive package of measures that builds on what this Government have done and reflects our ongoing commitment to public safety and the rights of the victim over the offender. I commend the plan to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement and I agree with a good deal of what he has proposed. We have been calling for some time for changes to the automatic sentence reduction for a guilty plea, so we welcome that. We also oppose the automatic release of the most serious offenders halfway through their sentences, so we welcome that change, too. We of course agree with the Home Secretary’s acceptance of our proposals for sentences on knife crime, and I further agree with the unanimity requirement for parole decisions, but I am amazed that members of the Parole Board do not already have experience of victims’ issues.

I welcome what sounds like a more sensible approach to human rights, although I will wait to see whether it has more effect than previous similar statements on this issue. Here, I have a question for the Home Secretary. If the Chahal challenge does not work, what will the Government then do? Again, I am amazed that front-line staff do not already get clear guidance and training in dealing with human rights issues. Taken together, these proposals are the clearest possible admission that the Conservatives were right when we suggested, against repeated Government denials, that the Human Rights Act 1998 was causing serial legal problems.

Sadly, I cannot give way to Labour Members at the moment or I should be delighted to take that intervention.

The first duty of a Government is to protect the public and, on too many occasions in the past nine years, this Government have failed to do that duty. The Home Secretary says that he now wants to rebalance the system and I sympathise with him, but before rebalancing the system one has to understand it. As we saw a few weeks ago in the case of Craig Sweeney, the Home Secretary’s understanding is different from the Attorney-General’s. That, in turn, is different from the Prime Minister’s, which, in turn, is different from the Lord Chancellor’s. In the end, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), was forced to give a written apology for the row that she engendered following the Home Secretary’s lead. Let us hope that they all now agree on what to do about this problem.

Contrary to the Home Secretary’s claims just now, under this Government crime has got worse, not better. Overall detection rates have dropped from 29 to 26 per cent., and, for violent offences, the fall is even worse: from 69 per cent. in 1997 to 50 per cent. today. For sex offences, the detection rate has more than halved.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary said that he wanted to reduce the bureaucratic burden on the police. I welcome that, so will he now commit to cutting the red tape, political correctness and targets coming out of his Department, and let the police get out on the streets and do the job? Annual crime figures out today show how desperately we need the police out on patrol deterring crime and catching criminals, not filling in forms in the station.

There are now almost 500,000 more recorded crimes a year than there were eight years ago. The number of violent crimes has more than doubled and there has been a seventh year-on-year increase. The justice gap—the difference between crimes committed and crimes cleared up, which a former Home Secretary, a former Lord Chancellor and a former Attorney-General all identified as the

“key measure of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system”—

has grown by more than 500,000 crimes a year. So much for this Government being tough on crime.

The Government’s record on the punishment, rehabilitation and supervision of offenders is equally catastrophic. Our prisons are full to bursting, which is, after all, why we are here today to discuss this issue. Offenders have little chance of rehabilitation, and dangerous criminals are released early. Some 70 per cent. of young males are now reconvicted within two years of release—up from 56 per cent. Since 1998, more than 200 offenders on supervision have been convicted of murder. Those facts are direct results of Government policy. They have consistently failed to create enough prison places, instead choosing to release offenders early, thereby putting the lives of innocent citizens at risk.

Now the Home Secretary says that he will build more prisons, which we of course welcome. Will those extra places be enough—over and above the ongoing growth in the prison population—to accommodate the tougher sentences and guidelines that he is proposing today? When will those sentencing measures come into force? When will the new prisons be built and when will the 8,000 extra prison places be ready for use? I understand from press coverage that it will take five years to get these extra places on stream. What will happen meanwhile? Will there be more early releases of would-be murderers? Will there be more ridiculously light sentences for rapists and paedophiles? If, as he says, he is going to release other people, can he give us more details on who they will be?

Because the Government failed to spend money on prisons in the past, they have had to rely more and more on non-custodial sentences, and the record is truly dreadful. A massive 88 per cent. of young offenders on the Government’s flagship intensive supervision and surveillance programme, supposedly the toughest alternative to prison, reoffended within 12 months.

The Home Secretary mentioned the concerns about drug treatment orders. Roughly 70 per cent. of offenders do not complete their orders, while 80 per cent. are reconvicted within two years. What is he going to do about the failing intensive supervision and surveillance programme and about the failure of drug treatment orders? Will he seriously consider our proposals for a tough residential treatment option for drugs users—ideally instead of prison, but even after prison? Drug addiction is probably the largest component in the increase in recidivism over the past several years.

I welcome the proposal to accelerate the processes in magistrates and other courts. From memory, I think that the time taken by magistrates courts has increased in the past five years by two working weeks, with the increase in Crown courts about double that. In both cases, the extra time is the result of the burdens, regulations and complex legislation that the Government have laid on the courts. It is time that that problem was put right.

As the Home Secretary just said, we are not starting from year zero. The Government have had nine years in office, during which time they have been long on promises but short on delivery. The simple truth is that we have heard all of this before. I enjoyed the headline in today’s edition of the right hon. Gentleman’s favourite daily read, The Sun. It cries out, “Blair Axes Soft Sentences”. I enjoyed that almost as much as last year’s version—“I’ll Change Law to Curb Thugs”—or the one of the year before—“Blair’s Plan to End the Anarchy on Our Streets”. Similar headlines appeared in the several preceding years, but what has happened? The problem has got worse, not better. So here we are again, facing the same problems, but with a different Labour Home Secretary claiming to have the solutions. The right hon. Gentleman talks a good story, but so did his three predecessors.

I am sorry that the Leader of the House has left the Chamber, as he started the Labour tradition of talking tough on crime. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) refined the art—boy, did he talk tough on crime. So did the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and the tabloids loved them. If speeches caught criminals, we would have swept the streets clean of lawlessness by now. Those three former Home Secretaries are the ones who presided over the disaster that we are witnessing today, because talk was all that they had to offer. Let us hope that, from this Home Secretary, we will get action, not words.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the kind words with which he welcomed my statement and for his support for some of the proposals in it. He asked whether we would consider other measures that he has looked at, and I can tell him that I am open-minded and always prepared to consider any measure that will protect the public better.

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman probably wrote parts of his speech before he heard my statement. [Hon. Members: “No.”] I said specifically that this was not a question of being tougher or softer, but of being smarter and better at protecting the public. I am interested in the objective effect of what we do, rather than in the talk, tough or otherwise, that surrounds it. He invited me to draw a comparison between his tough talk and some of the Opposition’s actions, and I shall do so towards the end of my response to his remarks.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that many members of the Parole Board have experience of being a victim in their normal lives. Not all of them do, however, and we want to ensure that all members have that perspective. That is why we want make that true of every new member.

On human rights, I said that we would look at how legislation is misrepresented or misinterpreted, and at how it is administered. From even a brief survey, it is plain to me that human rights and other legislation can lead to misunderstanding. For example, the way that the Data Protection Act 1998 was applied led to problems in the pursuit of Huntley, while misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the human rights and other legislation were at the root of the release of Rice, who went on to murder Naomi Bryant.

We need to be prepared to make available practical facilities to counter the myths about human rights when they are misused or misrepresented in such a way that people feel that they must take a particular course of action. That is the rebalancing that I am trying to achieve.

The Leader of the Opposition has proposed to solve the problem of the European convention on human rights not by amending or getting rid of it, but by introducing yet another Bill of Rights. That is the last thing that we need––a Bill of Rights that could contradict the ECHR. Anyway, that proposal was just another gimmick, like his views on antisocial behaviour, and did not last 24 hours, far less the tenures of three successive Home Secretaries.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) mentioned the discussions that have taken place between the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and myself on sentencing. The truth is that we have reached agreement on this matter. For instance, judges have no discretion when it comes to the mandatory 30 per cent. reduction in sentences that a guilty plea earns. That reduction applies irrespective of the circumstances in which a person is caught: even someone who is caught in flagrante will get that sentence reduction through pleading guilty. We are sometimes accused of taking discretion away from judges, but in this case we are giving it back to them.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about prison places. He likes to have it both ways: if we do not put people in prison, we are accused of being soft, but if we do, the complaint is that our prisons are bursting. I want to put the following on the record. There are now 19,000 more people in prison, many of them serious, violent or sexual offenders, than was ever the case under the previous Conservative Government. Moreover, sentences are much longer than they used to be under that Government. Of course we must look carefully at who is in prison but, when it comes to putting people behind bars, I am afraid that the Conservatives give us only the usual tough talk and soft-centred voting.

I thought that sentencing might come up today, so I have brought with me the Conservative voting record on the tough measures that we have introduced. The early removals scheme allows foreign national prisoners to be deported halfway through their sentences, but the Conservatives voted against it. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced tougher sentences for murder and for sexual and violent offences, and for persistent offenders, but the Conservatives voted against them. We brought in indeterminate sentences for people who have committed a serious sexual or violent offence, but the Conservatives voted against them. We introduced the new five-year minimal custodial sentence for unauthorised possession of a firearm, but the Conservatives voted against it. I could go through the whole list, but it is clear that, as ever, the Opposition talk tough but vote soft. The overall 35 per cent. reduction in crime since we took over from the Conservatives is a mark of this Government’s effectiveness.

We do not claim that our performance is perfect, and that is why we review and upgrade it continually. However, it is a damn sight better than what we inherited from the previous Government.

Order. May I ask hon. Members to restrict themselves to one supplementary question that elicits a brief reply? In that way, more may succeed in catching my eye.

I welcome much of what my right hon. Friend said. If we want to be smarter, rather than simply tougher, we must recognise that our prisons are full and hold many of the wrong people, and that the prison regime offers precious little chance that prisoners can be rehabilitated and brought back into stable jobs and family life when they leave. My right hon. Friend must have secured a significant amount of new money: how will he use it to transform the prison regime, so that it places a much bigger emphasis on work and a disciplined working day, and on returning people to working life after they leave prison?

I take my right hon. Friend’s point that protection and punishment have to be accompanied by rehabilitation not only because that is good for the individual offender or prisoner, but because that contributes to the protection of society by a reduction in reoffending. That is why I am pleased that, last year, 79,000 prisoners—I think that was the figure—were involved in some form of qualification and skill enhancement. I want that to be advanced. The extension of places and the release of pressure on the prison system itself, which in its most fundamental aspects is intended to reduce the potential for overcrowding, always extends the possibility of carrying out such skills enhancement. I saw an element of that when I was in Wandsworth prison, where some of the skills that will be necessary to prepare for the Olympics in London—for example, plastering and bricklaying—are being introduced, in partnership with private sector firms in the building industry, which will employ offenders when they are released. That is the way forward.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement, although I saw from my early edition of The Sun that others had received versions of it even before we had in the House.

Much of the Home Secretary’s statement is arguably too little. Quite a lot of it is too late. None the less, significant parts of it are welcome. I welcome, for example, the almost surprising rhetoric that he has displayed today about prisons. He has recognised, I think for the first time, that there are people in our prisons who should not be there, including vulnerable women and those who need treatment for mental health conditions. Rather than announcing new multi-million pound budgets for investing in bricks and mortar for new prisons, does he not think it would be worth investing that money in bricks and mortar for new secure mental health treatment centres, where those offenders could be more adequately housed, dealt with and rehabilitated? Equally, there is a strong case to invest far more in visible and rigorous public punishment sentences in the community. He will be aware that, in 2004, for example, over 50,000 lesser offenders served no more than an average of eight weeks in prison. Surely it would be better to have them punished and rehabilitated for the benefit of our communities, rather than them spending a few stopover weeks in prison.

The Home Secretary should be mindful that the Home Office’s own research 10 years ago or so showed that, if we wanted to reduce the overall level of crime by 1 per cent., we would need to increase prison capacity by 25 per cent. That statistic itself shows that there are limits to how much the Government can build itself out of the present prison overcrowding crisis.

I am relieved to see that the Home Secretary and other members of the Government appear to have resiled from the early tub-thumping rhetoric against the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights, and that that approach has apparently been abandoned in favour of a more intelligent emphasis on the training and support needed for officials who have to interpret the Act. Next time there is a controversy over an issue as important as human rights, could he and his colleagues refrain from jumping on the media bandwagon and arrive earlier at the correct conclusion that he has appeared to arrive at today?

On sentencing, we agree, of course, that we need to give judges more discretion in setting the deductions for guilty pleas and in removing the automatic halving of the period of custody before release can be considered. I note, however, that those welcome moves merely undo rules that were introduced by the Government in legislation passed only a few years ago. I also welcome in principle the idea that Parole Board decisions on serious offences should be unanimous, although I suspect that in practice—I would like some clarification on this—that happens most of the time any way.

Can the Home Secretary explain why he has not gone further? Surely one of the greatest problems is that so many of the sentences handed down simply do not do what they say and that is one of the main reasons why public confidence in our sentencing system has been severely eroded. Life sentences, for example, do not mean life. Does he agree that public confidence would be considerably strengthened if a life sentence really meant life and applied to those cases where the courts judge that the offender should remain in custody for the remainder of his or her life?

Again, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, despite the burden of his remarks, seems to find much with which he can agree in what I have said today. I am always gratified to see that that is the case on both Opposition Benches.

It is true that we should be spending more on health. From memory, the health budget has gone from £33 billion to £95 billion or thereabouts, including increases in mental health spending, so a considerable amount of money is already going into that sector, but the point about making sure that there are, in substance and in perception, sufficient prison places is this. It is the sine qua non for three things. The first is to ensure that those serious offenders who should be in prison for a long period for public protection purposes and for other reasons are kept there. Secondly, if we are to discriminate, in the proper sense, in order to relieve our prisons of the burdens of those who should not be there, it is important that the public believe that we are doing that for legitimate reasons and not just because we are short of prison places. Thirdly, I do not believe that the public will accept community service as a legitimate means of serving and repaying the community unless, again, they believe that it is being done for reasons other than a shortage of prison places. In short, more prison places is the sine qua non. It is the basic requirement for protecting the public better, ensuring that those who are in prison are the people who should be in prison and ensuring that there is a legitimacy to alternatives other than prison.

The hon. Gentleman raised human rights. I do not think that it is tub thumping to say that the public are utterly bewildered by some sentences. He himself talked about that in his last comments. The public are utterly bewildered. There are two reasons for that: first, the misrepresentation of human rights and, secondly, the judgments on the European convention on human rights by the European Court. I mentioned one of them earlier—the Chahal judgment. That is outrageously at odds with what we believe to be the correct balance of human rights as expressed in the Human Rights Act and as understood by everyone in this Chamber: the balance of the individual versus the community. That is why we oppose that. It is not a matter of tub thumping. It is a matter of saying that there are substantial problems; there are problems that we must look at not only in legislation but as regards interpretation, misrepresentation and maladministration.

The hon. Gentleman made a quip about being on television. As far as I can make out, he has a season ticket to the television studios. I have hardly been in them in the past seven weeks, but I have not needed to be because I have had the vicarious thrill of experiencing what they are like by watching him.

Stafford has a prison that I visit regularly. I agree with my right hon. Friend that too many prisoners there cannot read and write, have mental illnesses or a dependency on alcohol or drugs. I am pleased to hear that he will try to find alternative outcomes for such individuals.

My question is about those serious offenders who serve long sentences. Did I hear my right hon. Friend say that the Parole Board will seek out the views of the specific victims of that offender’s behaviour before they make the decision on parole? When he makes the decisions about changing the sentences that they serve, will he bear in mind the effect on prison discipline, because prison officers already do difficult work for us, in challenging circumstances, and those changes will have an effect on the work that they do?

Yes, I will bear that in mind. Most people looking at some of the decisions that have been taken believe that it is necessary to restore public confidence in parole decisions. I have the highest admiration for the people who work on parole boards and the commitment, professionalism and dedication that they show. We can improve confidence by doing three things.

First, we should assure ourselves that all new members have experience of what it is like to be a victim either directly or, if they do not have personal experience of that, indirectly from assisting victims. Secondly, we should make sure that in serious cases, involving violent or sexual offences for instance, there is an expression of the victim’s voice, not as a member of the parole board but to supplement the experience of the parole board. There is no reason why that cannot be done—for instance, by legal representation and, if necessary in serious cases, legal representation in consultation with the family. If there is to be an oral hearing and the offender is allowed to put his case for release, it is not obvious to me why those who have suffered as a result of the offence should not have the right to some representation, at least on their behalf if not directly.

Thirdly, we should require unanimity. In many cases at present there is unanimity, but it should be a requirement in cases of serious and violent offences. Those three things together will restore the balance.

The public do indeed need to be protected from those who commit serious, violent and sexual offences, but those are not the type of offences that tend to be committed by women. The Home Secretary touched on that when he referred to vulnerable women in prison. Can he give us an assurance that he is not planning for more women to go to prison, but is planning for a sentencing system under which, wherever appropriate, women serve their sentences as close as possible to home and preferably in the company of their children?

We want to act in a humane way. The Government have done more on domestic violence than any predecessor Government. I cannot predict the statistics. Some vulnerable women are involved in a cycle and end up in prison; if they go out, they up in prison again. We want to address that in a sensible and smart as well as efficient fashion, from the point of view of protection of the public as well as from the point of view of the individual.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals to change the sentencing guidelines. I know that my constituents whose three-year-old daughter was assaulted by Craig Sweeney will particularly welcome the fact that there will no longer be an automatic cut of a third of the sentence for a guilty plea or automatic consideration for parole after serving half the sentence. They have campaigned for that. I pay tribute to the dignified way in which they have dealt with that family tragedy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these changes to the sentencing guidelines should be aimed at the most dangerous offenders and those who are the greatest risk to the public?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I made my views known about that sentence at the time. I am glad that we now have widespread agreement that the points that she mentions ought to be addressed when looking at sentencing.

The Home Office knows that every week more than 2,000 people commit for the first time a serious criminal offence. I hope that the Home Secretary will at some stage find a way of publishing those figures and showing whether there have been changes. If we are to have fewer victims, we need to have fewer people committing serious crimes. Is there any possibility of setting an ambition of needing not more prison places but fewer, either because offenders have been treated more adequately, reformed and put back into society, or because fewer people commit crimes in the first place, which must be the ambition of both the Government and the Opposition?

Of course we want ultimately to have fewer people committing crimes. That would have the consequence that the hon. Gentleman seeks, which is fewer people in prison. However, as long as there are people committing crimes, we will need prison places. Overall, according to the British crime survey, crime is down by 35 per cent. since 1997, which is a fairly significant reduction. It has been accompanied by an increase in the number of those in prison and the length of sentences because we believe that, while we should reduce crime, we should treat those who commit violent or serious sexual offences in a more fitting manner by giving them tougher sentences. That is the view that we have tried to take in a balanced and sensible fashion.

The views that the hon. Gentleman expresses do not concur entirely with those expressed by his Front-Bench spokesmen. [Interruption.] He is right. They do not necessarily concur with mine either, but then we are not in the same party. One would expect some sort of relationship between the members of one party. The discovery of the Conservative party’s feminine side has impressed us all, but I have no plans to hug a hoodie or to hug a thug or to go any further than the plans that I have announced today.

Next Wednesday, when everyone is going off on holiday, I shall be in Blackfriars crown court starting jury service. We changed the law three or four years ago. I have been reflecting on the experience that is to come. Has any systematic work been done to canvass the views of the thousands of people who have served on juries on how delays can be minimised and on other changes that might be made to the system?

My hon. Friend’s commitment to public service appears to know no bounds. We are all, I am sure, duly impressed with that. It is with delight and surprise that I come to the Dispatch Box without my usual riposte to my hon. Friend, which is to distance myself from his suggestions. I hope that it will not go against me in my career, but I agree with him. We ought to carry out a wider public consultation on a number of the measures that we are putting forward here today. The public want to and ought to feel that all of us in this House make decisions after listening to them.

Some people mix up populism with listening to the views of ordinary people. Therefore consultation on many of the proposals that we have outlined, which go further than the changes to which we have committed ourselves today, ought to be a good idea. We should go into communities. I hope that other members of the criminal justice system will do that alongside us. Part of that might be to listen to former jury members and, indeed, to my hon. Friend himself.

The Chahal decision was in 1996, a decade ago. When do the Government expect to mount an effective challenge to that? What are the Government going to do if they fail to overturn the decision?

I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that, as in our own judicial system, things do not always move as quickly as we would like. We are already engaged along with European colleagues in a challenge to that decision through another case that is before the European Court of Human Rights. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman for definite when that case will end, but I think that it will be in the next 12 months. That is not a prediction but an estimate. I have found from long experience that when pursuing one course of action it is wise not to start outlining to all sorts of people, including those who sit in judgment, what we would do if we did not achieve our objective. We should pursue our objective.

If the Home Secretary is intent, as I know he is, on making sure that society and my constituents are protected from the most violent criminals—those who kill and seriously maim—will he address the important issue of witness intimidation? There is no doubt that those who intimidate witnesses can escape justice and terrify the very victims whom my right hon. Friend wants to protect.

That is absolutely true, which is one of the reasons why we have been exploring and introducing prevention orders against organised crime, to prevent that and a number of other offences before they happen. I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is important. We are already acting on it, but we will keep it under review, and if it is necessary to tweak or rebalance the system to counter it we will do so.

The Home Secretary referred in his statement to the perception of the way in which the criminal justice system works, although the unfair criticism of Judge John Griffith Williams in the Sweeney case did nothing for that perception. However, I welcome the reference to drugs intervention and hope that a lot of resources will be allocated to it; as the Home Secretary knows, two thirds of property crime is drugs-related. I commend to him the good work on drugs intervention at Altcourse prison in Liverpool.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and join him in his last comment. On the leniency of sentences, I hope that people will separate personalities from objective outcomes. I do not regret for one minute that I criticised the unduly lenient nature of a sentence. Today, I have announced measures to make sure that such sentences are not unduly lenient in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who spoke about the case earlier, recognised that we are moving towards changing the system. There is common agreement about that, so I think I should confine my remarks to the nature of the sentencing, not the personalities involved.

A recent survey that I carried out among my constituents on policing and law and order issues showed that their priorities were for more visible policing and tougher sentences. They also wanted more protection from antisocial behaviour and street crime and a better response to it. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in carrying out his welcome proposals he will meet the priorities of my constituents?

I am glad to confirm to my hon. Friend that the priorities independently identified by her constituents are precisely mine: a visible, accessible, responsive police service is what people want in their communities. When I was speaking earlier, I received criticism from Opposition Members; I merely remind them that we have more police than ever before and more police on our streets and on the beat than ever before, accompanied by community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. They are developing neighbourhood teams, and are empowered to counter antisocial behaviours as never before. That we are doing all that reflects the fact that our priorities are the same as those of my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I welcome the direction taken by the statement, although it represents an admission of failure because the Government have been going in the wrong direction for nine years. To rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, may I suggest that the Home Secretary reintroduce some honesty in the sentencing system to make sure that prisoners serve their sentence in full? Will he also make a commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, which in the public’s mind has done so much to entrench a culture in which people believe that the system favours giving rights to criminals, prisoners and illegal immigrants at the expense of the ordinary, decent, law-abiding citizens of this country? Both those measures would meet with huge public approval.

That does not seem to be the view of the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party, who has resiled from any commitment to leave the European convention on human rights and instead has promised us the undoubted bonus of yet another Bill of Rights to add to the convention. Rather than asking me to do what his own party leader will not do, the hon. Gentleman would do better to start a little closer to home, as we are trying to do with our antisocial behaviour measures to protect people in their homes, on the streets and in their communities. The vast majority of people want effective policing and security and a reduction of fear.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that money for new prison places will not direct resources away from existing prisons, especially their education, training and mental health services and other measures designed to reduce reoffending? Can every effort be made to identify the vulnerable women and others for whom prison is not suitable and to direct them to more appropriate services?

Yes, I will try to do that. In another place, Lady Corston is carrying out a review. My noble Friend Baroness Scotland, the Minister in the other place, takes a great interest in the matter and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who has three prisons and a young offenders institution in her constituency, takes a particular interest, too. I shall rely on all of them to help me move in the direction she suggests.

My constituent was left in a coma after an assault by a young thug who, 10 days earlier, had been released with a three-month supervision order for a similar crime. The maximum sentence for his crime was five years, but the guideline was 15 months, so because he had already served six months in custody the judge had no alternative but to let him free to go back on the streets. The sentencing guidelines are part of the problem. What does the Home Secretary propose to do about them?

As I told the House earlier, the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and I will be consulting our colleagues, including those who make up the bulk of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, on a number of issues. I hope that the outcome of those discussions will reassure the hon. Gentleman that some of the things he raised are being addressed.

I look forward to the Home Secretary’s consultation with former jurors, as, like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I was summoned for jury service—at the Old Bailey, last week. It was a bit of a damp squib; 120 of us were summoned and we sat in a cramped room for three hours before we were released without having to serve the rest of our two weeks. Do not we need radical changes in the way courts are run? The sittings should not simply be in the interests of the lawyers and at the convenience of the judge. There should be programmed times for cases so that trials are not as long as they are at present, and jurors and witnesses should not be treated as some kind of necessary evil.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments. That is why our priorities included not only protecting the public from violent crime and prolific offenders, putting victims and communities first, building public confidence in sentencing and gripping offenders to protect the public, but also simple, speedy summary justice, with things such as live TV links between police stations and courts to speed processing, the expanded use of conditional cautions and the bulk processing of regulatory offences. Recently, I visited a court in the Liverpool area where there is a degree of pre-consultation between all the parties involved—from the prosecution right through to probation and policing. The driving dynamism of the judge in that court has greatly expedited efficient treatment and fairness, and diminished inconvenience and cost to everyone. I hope that example of bringing the parties together more efficiently, which has already spread to Manchester, will spread throughout the country.

In welcoming much of what the Home Secretary has announced today, I urge him to have an early discussion with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that people in my area, too, can benefit from a greater sense of fairness in the sentencing regime and so that they can have a sense that the criminal justice system is both fair to, and meeting the needs of, victims. He will know from his previous experience that we already lag behind in many areas, such as ASBOs, unlimited sentencing, the life sentence tariffs and so on. He is the man who can have a word with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Will he do it quickly and ensure that we get action on these areas?

I am always willing to have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—formally and informally—but I would much rather that the rapid progress in this area was made by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, and together, wherever that is possible.

If this is an area that is not devolved to the Assembly, of course I will share my views with the Secretary of State. He will be aware of them, because these details are shared with my Cabinet colleagues before I share them with the House.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that, for many people, the world begins outside their front door. At the beginning of the week, I was on Goldenhill road in my constituency, with the elected mayor, talking to local residents about crime and antisocial behaviour from a park behind their houses. My right hon. Friend has said that he is going to propose a number of things to tackle groups of young thugs—for want of a better word—driving their motorbikes up and down the park. Can he give any further indication of what other measures may be in the pipeline specifically relating to motorbikes and their misuse, and of how the existing fantastic improvements to the law can be toughened up even further?

Yes, I can tell my hon. Friend that we intend to bring forward and implement measures that are intended to be directed at that specific area. They are to back up and complement the powers that we have already introduced in relation to local policing and local people. Those powers enable the quick closure of crack houses, which are a cancer on many estates. There are also dispersal orders for antisocial elements. I mentioned a new parental compensation order being brought in.

The question is important. I remember when we started to deal in the House with antisocial behaviour issues. On one occasion, we were laughed out by Opposition Members, who regarded it as somehow demeaning that we were dealing with burnt-out cars, graffiti, muggings and needles in the street. We were mocked as being interested in chewing gum on the pavements. Not for the first time, Opposition Members were completely and utterly out of touch with the feelings of the vast majority of people in this country.

Order. I am trying hard to accommodate everyone. May I please ask for one supplementary question and brief replies?

May I tell the Home Secretary that there is a site designated on the Isle of Wight for a fourth prison? He owns it, it has planning permission, and my constituents would welcome the investment and jobs. When are the new sentencing guidelines going to come into effect and when will the new prison places be available?

The answer to the last two questions—rather than one question, there were three—is: as soon as possible; and the answer to the first question is: all offers considered.

According to the Home Secretary’s statement, the Government will end the requirement that judges should automatically halve the minimum term when setting the earliest release date for those serving unlimited sentences. Am I right in thinking that the vast majority of sentences are not unlimited sentences, and does that mean that the majority of sentences, say for 18 years, 14 years, 12 years, will still—

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the vast majority of serious offences now are given indeterminate sentences—in other words, unlimited sentences.

I can reassure the Home Secretary that, despite being in touch with my feminine side, I will not be hugging a hoodie, in case he stabs me in the stomach. On a serious point, how can we best use sentencing to persuade young people that the simple act of carrying a knife is a serious crime in itself?

We do that by making sure that the maximum sentence for carrying a knife—whether it is classified as an offensive weapon or an object with a point, which are the two classifications in legislation—is long enough to denote the seriousness of that act. That is why I have announced today, as part of my measures, that I intend to extend the maximum sentence for carrying an object with a point or a blade to four years.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s comments about low-level offending and the fact that more police officers should be on the beat. However, in Wellingborough, yob culture is growing. The chief constable has interpreted Government policy by getting rid of the basic command unit in my area, removing my chief superintendent to outside the constituency and moving police officers outside the constituency. It would appear that the chief constable has misunderstood Government policy. Will the Home Secretary have a word with him to reverse those decisions?

Although I am always willing to try to help hon. Members, especially on the Opposition Benches, I will observe the proprieties of allowing chief constables to make their own decisions on those matters—unless the issue is of such strategic and national importance that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I would legitimately be entitled to intervene.

I am glad that we agree on one thing. Where there are young thugs—this does not apply to the vast majority of young people, who are as unenamoured of yobs and thugs as the rest of population—hugs do not always provide a way of tackling them. I am glad that he is with our side of the House on that. I thought for a moment that he was going to add shouting “Yo!” to a yob, or something of that nature, to the idea of hugging a hoodie. I am glad that he refrained from doing so.


Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

Secretary John Reid, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Darling, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Hazel Blears and Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe, presented a Bill to create a new offence that, in England and Wales or Northern Ireland, is to be called corporate manslaughter and, in Scotland, is to be called corporate homicide; and to make provision in connection with that offence: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 24 July, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 220].