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Sentencing Policy

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

A major review conducted by Lord Carter of Coles is currently considering sentencing policy as part of the wider examination of prison and probation services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response; the review will be very welcome. We have already had a serious debate in this Chamber about the need for non-custodial sentences for those who do not pose a major danger to the public. Does he accept, nevertheless, that there is public disquiet about those who pose a serious threat to the public—those who have been found guilty of crimes involving great violence or unreasonable cruelty—but whose sentencing does not always seem to reflect what the public would see as the need for salutary deterrent sentences? Can he refer that to the review body?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the need to ensure that the committing of a serious sexual or violent offence is properly punished. Whether in respect of the review of indeterminate sentences for public protection or in other ways, we have no intention of seeing any cuts in sentences for rape. He may also wish to know that between 1996 and 2004 the average sentence for rape increased from six and a half years to seven years, and that the minimum recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in any circumstances is four years.

In considering any proposals for changing sentencing policy, will the Minister ensure that the lack of capacity in the prison estate does not influence the length of sentences given and the proportion of those sentences which are served?

Any prison system has to take account of total capacity. We have increased capacity by 20,000 places over the past 10 years—twice as fast as the rate under the previous Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, with 2,000 places a year compared with 1,000 places previously. We have already announced plans for an additional 9,500 places over forthcoming years. In his review, which will of course be published first to this House, Lord Carter of Coles is considering what further capacity is needed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges of sentencing policy is to educate the public about the sentences passed by our courts? In discussions with my constituents, it is clear that there is an under-appreciation of the length and nature of sentences. Will he take every opportunity to inform the public better about sentences that are actually passed?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons has pointed out, we have greatly toughened up the effectiveness of community sentences, particularly for prisoners who might otherwise be sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. A point frequently made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is that community sentences are often more effective. I would also point out that over the last 10 years, a major effort by the police, the probation service, the Prison Service and local authorities throughout the country has ensured that crime has come down. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that there has been a 40 per cent. drop in crime since 1995, with even bigger drops in burglary and vehicle crime.