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Volume 528: debated on Monday 23 May 2011

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister. Just before I call the shadow Secretary of State to move the motion, may I gently point out to him and the Secretary of State that there is a premium on time and that Back Benchers will be heavily restricted? There is no time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I am sure that both right hon. Gentlemen will wish to apply a certain self-denying ordinance.

I beg to move,

That this House opposes changing the maximum discount for custodial sentences to up to 50% for those who plead guilty.

Should an offender who commits any offence—grievous bodily harm, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, attempted murder, burglary, mugging, downloading child porn, rape—be given a discount in his or her sentence of up to 50% if they plead guilty at the earliest opportunity? I will deal with the issue in three parts: first, the background to the policy; then I shall move on to its real motivation; thirdly, and finally, I will put my case for why the House should reject that policy.

Sentencing represents the climax of the court process at the point when a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty. Judges or magistrates decide within set guidelines on the most appropriate sentence to hand down, basing their decision on a range of factors, including the severity of the offence. Punishment is a key purpose of sentencing—punishing offenders for the crime they have committed—but it is also about deterrence both for society as a whole and to the individual in question, aiming to prevent the offender from committing another offence.

A key factor not to be underestimated is the protection of the public and the respite provided to communities, but we must also emphasise the importance of rehabilitating offenders. Sentencing provides the opportunity to work with offenders to reduce the chances of their reoffending in the future. It is about focusing on what works to ensure that there is no drift back into a life of crime, but it also provides the opportunity to work with those who have debilitating mental health issues and dependencies on drugs and alcohol.

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is suffering from political amnesia, given that his Government presided over the debacle of failing to deport a huge number of foreign prisoners and were also responsible for the deeply unpopular and failed policy of the early release scheme.

I will deal with both those points. Last week, the Justice Front-Bench team were asked how many of these foreign prisoners they had deported during the 12 months that they had been in power, and the answer was—quote of quotes—“about 60”. As to the end-of-custody licence, on four occasions between 1979 and 1997, the previous Conservative Government released prisoners early—without the checks and balances that we had, whereby no serious or violent offenders were let out on our watch.

How to balance these different purposes of sentencing is in the judges’ discretion, and plea bargaining is also a key part of our sentencing system. Part of plea bargaining is when an offender’s sentence is reduced on submission of a guilty plea. This is an aspect of our sentencing system that has evolved over many decades, becoming more formalised in recent years.

The right hon. Gentleman brings up the matter of credits for those who plead guilty and he is right to say that it used to be at the judges’ discretion—until it was made mandatory by the previous Government. The discount of a third, which is given now, is one created by his Government, not by judicial discretion.

I will come on to deal with that point in a moment, but the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said is factually wrong.

Successive Governments have sought to codify the amount of discount one gets off a sentence for pleading guilty, and the first real attempt at codification came with section 48 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This introduced a requirement for the court to take account of a guilty plea. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) may have been alluding to section 144 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which included statutory provision on reductions in sentences for guilty pleas; the Sentencing Council sought to provide structure and judicial direction in this matter.

Is it acceptable for a defendant pleading guilty at a timely opportunity—let us say, for an offence of rape—who should have been liable to a tariff of five years, to get a third off, meaning a sentence of 40 months, which would have led, in turn, to the individual being released after 20 months? That would have happened under legislation passed on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch. Indeed, it could have led to an even earlier release if further credit had been given for remorse or co-operation with the police at an interview. Is that acceptable?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but he will be aware that the maximum discount that can be given on a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity goes up to one third, but if there is overwhelming evidence against the individual, the maximum discount is only 20%. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of that, because I know he still practises in the criminal courts.

The motion expresses the shadow Minister’s disapproval of the 50% discount, but the Green Paper that was published in December 2010 canvassed the possibility in paragraph 216 on page 63. Here we are at the end of May, and only now are the Opposition raising the matter. Is it possible that this is just opportunism?

The consultation ended on 4 March this year, and we made our concerns clear back in December. I shall deal with the timeline in a moment, because it is relevant to the spinning that has taken place over the past seven days.

Under our current system, if a guilty plea is entered at the first reasonable opportunity, there is discretion for a sentence to be reduced by up to one third. The later in the process the guilty plea is entered, the smaller the reduction becomes. There is a discount of a quarter if the plea is entered once the trial date is set, and a discount of a tenth when it is entered at the door of the court at the time of the trial. As I said earlier, there is a discount of 20% if the plea is entered at the first opportunity but there is overwhelming evidence against the defendant.

I accept that a sentence discount represents a tension between the delivery of justice and the improving of efficiency in the legal system, but that tension can potentially bring benefits to victims who are spared the trauma of a long period in court. Up until now, the system has always sought certainty that the right balance is being struck. If the sentence reduction is too great, it threatens to undermine the principles of sentencing and public confidence in the system. Worse still, it may mean that justice is not being served.

The Government’s Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle” proposed a maximum discount of 50% for those who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity. No. 10 and the Lord Chancellor would like us to believe that they are in full consultation mode and are simply “flying a kite” about changing the current practice. I accept that there has been consultation on the proposal, but the Lord Chancellor’s decision to accept a 23% cut in his budget has led to a fixation with reducing the prison population. That fixation has overridden all other objectives, and shows just how out of touch the Government have become. They want to reduce prison numbers not because crime is being reduced or because fewer people need to be in jail, but quite simply because of money.

In the light of his accusation that the only motivation for the Government’s offer of consultation with options is reducing the prison population, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that between 2007 and 2010, his party’s Government released early the equivalent of the entire current prison population of 80,000?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is not misleading the House intentionally or recklessly, but, as he knows, the maximum time off on end-of-custody licences was 18 days. We are not talking about an additional 17%.

Is the right hon. Gentleman honestly telling the House that under the tenure of the last Government there was not a serious and profound problem of overcrowding in our prisons?

I remember that the manifesto on which the hon. Lady stood for election and won her seat stated that the Conservatives would provide the same number of prison places we would.

The Department’s impact assessment gives the game away. The sentence discount plan provides the Lord Chancellor with the lion’s share of his reduction in prison places. The impact assessment shows that £3,400 of the overall savings from the 6,000 fewer prison places that will be needed as a result of the sentencing package will come from the planned increase in the maximum available discount to 50%. I accept that that equates to £130 million a year, but it demonstrates that the Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

If the right hon. Gentleman expects the House to take his arguments seriously, perhaps he will explain why he and his party failed to make any submission to that Green Paper.

Of all the points that have been made, that is the silliest. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that it is silly to expect a Member to respond to every consultation document when he has other opportunities to make his views known, such as asking questions of the Justice Secretary on the Floor of the House, speaking to the Justice Secretary, and speaking to the Opposition.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I ask whether I correctly heard what the right hon. Gentleman said? Did he accuse me of misleading the House in the figures I mentioned in my question to him?

As I recall, the right hon. Gentleman said quite the reverse: he said you were not misleading the House intentionally.

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Did the right hon. Gentleman therefore accept that what I said was factually accurate?

To save a bit of time, let me say that it might be more appropriate for that question to be asked in an intervention on the shadow Secretary of State.

May I help the right hon. Gentleman? I do not like to disagree with my colleagues, but he did make a submission on the Government’s proposals. At the end of last year he was asked by The Guardian whether he agreed with anything the Justice Secretary had said on criminal justice, and his answer was no.

I am happy to set out a timeline of when I have and when I have not agreed with the Lord Chancellor. He and I often comment on the fact that we agree on many issues, but I have said all along that I disagree with this particular proposal. I will discuss the timelines shortly, however.

Is not another reason for the dramatic overcrowding of our prisons that the current Government inherited the fact that more than 50% of the prisoners given indeterminate sentences—6,000 in total—served longer than the sentence they were given? Is this not another example, at the other end of the sentencing spectrum from the early release scheme, of the chaos we inherited with regard to sentencing policy?

On the one hand we are criticised for prisoners who have been properly checked being released on licence 18 days before their sentence is completed, but on the other it is suggested that people who have been proved to be a danger to the public and are serving indeterminate sentences should be released prematurely to save money, rather than there being proper checks and balances. At present, IPPs—imprisonment for public protection sentences—are imposed on all prisoners convicted of rape offences and all sentences of four years and more. Under the new proposals, the Government are considering changing the regime so that only those sentenced to 10 years or more will receive an IPP sentence. That will be a genuine source of concern to the public throughout the country.

Why do we not arrange for all the interventions planted by the Government Whips to be read out at once, so that my right hon. Friend can get on with his speech and we can get on with the debate?

I want to help the shadow Justice Secretary, so I should not be accused of pure opportunism. Does he think it is acceptable that a convicted rapist with a third off their sentence for plea could be released after 20 months: yes or no?

I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he will support our motion when it is put to the vote at 7.15 pm.

I have been generous in giving way. The hon. Gentleman can have a third bite at the cherry after I have made some progress.

I promise to give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have made some progress.

The consultation period ended on 4 March, so there is no more time for the public to have their say, and it appears that experts and stakeholders who voiced their opposition have been ignored. Last Tuesday morning, the Cabinet Sub-Committee signed off the policy, and last Tuesday afternoon my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) asked in Justice questions how giving half off a sentence would help to protect the public. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) replied. He did not say the proposal was still under consultation, or that it was being considered only for non-violent, non-serious or non-sexual offences. He said:

“I would have thought that a moment’s reflection would make that clear. Let us suppose that someone who is accused of rape co-operates with the authorities…That is one example where there is a definitive benefit”.—[Official Report, 17 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 140.]

By the bye, when the Lord Chancellor seeks to blame others for trying to introduce “sexual excitement” into the debate, he should look not at journalists or Labour Members, but at his Front-Bench team.

If there was any doubt that this Government had already made up their mind about this policy, the Lord Chancellor’s answer to my question in last Tuesday’s Justice questions made the position clear. When I pleaded with him to reconsider this proposal, praying in aid not just the Labour party, but judges, victims’ groups and the Government’s own victims commissioner, he said that it would “survive” the consultation.

The right hon. Gentleman is sharing with us his concerns for victims of crime, but his party introduced the Human Rights Act 1998. Just last year alone, more than 200 foreign criminals, including many convicted killers, could not be deported as a direct result of that Act, so would he like to take this opportunity to apologise to the House for putting the rights of criminals before those of victims?

I am delivering a speech in two weeks on the human rights law and I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of it, detailing all the victims who have benefited from the Human Rights Act over the past few years.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the answer given to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in last week’s questions. What would be the Opposition’s attitude had the example of fraud been given? Would we have had all this “bandwaggoning” then?

The hon. Gentleman, who knows this area very well, will know that the proposals, which we know have been approved, are for all crimes. If they had been for classes of crime, we could have had a debate about whether or not crime A was in the right category, but this discount of a maximum of 50% is to apply in respect of all crimes. He is right to raise the issue of a broad-brush approach being taken to save money.

The shadow Justice Secretary said earlier that he had not quite followed my point, so I will give him a second chance to answer it. The proposal I put to him was that between 2007 and 2010 his party released more than 80,000 prisoners early, 16,000 of whom had committed violent crimes—that figure of more than 80,000 is equivalent to the entire current prison population. So before he and his party get too pious about their track record, will he confirm whether these facts are true or not?

It is a fact that the previous Government released prisoners 18 days early once they had been through the hoops. However, violent criminals, people on the sexual offenders list and people accused of terrorist offences were not released early, and these people were released a maximum of 18 days early and on licence. The hon. Gentleman will also know that on four occasions during the previous Conservative Government prisoners were released early without the checks and balances that we conducted.

I think that I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman’s point on more than one occasion and I want to make some progress.

We also know that the Government had originally scheduled tomorrow—the last day before recess—to be the day on which they published their response to the Green Paper. So when the Prime Minister says at Prime Minister’s questions that this is only a consultation, when No. 10 says that the Ministry of Justice is merely “flying a kite” and when we are told that this is not an across the board reduction in sentence, we know that that is not the case.

I wish to spend some time talking about why Labour Members believe that the whole House should support our motion and reject this policy. The Green Paper, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate, in last week’s Justice questions, and the Lord Chancellor, on BBC’s “Question Time”, have all said that the maximum 50% discount would apply to all crimes. So it will apply to grievous bodily harm, attempted murder, rape, burglary, muggings, death by dangerous driving and all the other crimes that we can all think of that have such a miserable impact on communities up and down the country. Let us consider the impact of the proposals on some sentences. A convicted rape offender could be back on the streets after only 15 months. Someone convicted of causing actual bodily harm where the assault is premeditated and it results in relatively serious injury could end up serving three months in prison. Criminals convicted of burglary when the occupier is at home could serve as little as 10 weeks in prison. In the case of very serious crimes, where sentences are longer, the additional 17% rise in the discount might have the greatest impact. In such circumstances, an additional 17% translates into reductions of years.

The right hon. Gentleman is talking about figures, but does he accept, as regards the figures already mentioned by Government Members—the 80,000 prisoners and the 16,000 prisoners who committed violent crimes who were released early under the Labour Government over 13 years—that 181 of those released early committed violent offences including three murders and six sexual offences? Does he accept those figures?

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) commented on the efficiency of the Conservative Whips and I can see that the Lord Chancellor’s Parliamentary Private Secretary is also very effective. I have not seen the note that the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) has been passed by the Lord Chancellor’s PPS, but if he will discuss it with me afterwards I can check whether it is accurate.

It is not just us who think this policy is wrong. The Sentencing Council, the body charged with offering expert advice on such issues, states that

“in other common law jurisdictions the largest discount on offer is around a third, with some offering up to 35%. To date no jurisdictions have been identified where the discount is significantly higher than this”.

It goes on to point out:

“The Council has not identified any research to date that indicates that an increase in the level of the discount would be likely to increase the volume of early guilty pleas.”

The only evidence we have seen shows how much money will be saved, and cost is once again being put above good justice.

May I ask the shadow Secretary of State to clarify? Does he agree with the leader of his party, who said:

“Tougher prison sentences aren’t always the answer”?

When are they appropriate and when are they not? What does the leader of his party mean?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what the leader of my party believes. He thinks that it is inappropriate and offensive both to victims and our criminal justice system if all offenders are given a discount of up to 50% for pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity.

Further evidence that the Government are out of touch is provided by their Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, Louise Casey, who has argued:

“A discount of 50% offends many victims, underplays the harm that may have been caused…and can seem to be placing administrative efficiency over justice.”

Campaign groups such as Justice and the Criminal Justice Alliance also oppose the policy. The judiciary have also been critical. Lord Justice Thomas, vice-president of the Queen’s bench division, and Lord Justice Goldring, senior presiding judge for England and Wales, have said that halving sentences because of guilty pleas will fail to reflect the seriousness of offences.

The Government’s policy on law and order is a mess. They just do not get it. Before the election, the Prime Minister made promise after promise to get elected. He promised to protect front-line services and he is now cutting 14,000 prison and probation staff. His Government are also cutting front-line police, which we will debate later this evening, and 23 specialist domestic violence courts are being closed. They promised a prison sentence for anyone caught in possession of a knife—that promise was broken. They promised honesty in sentencing and that they would introduce minimum and maximum sentences—those promises were broken.

What did the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader mean when he said:

“When Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime”?

Has that gone by the board?

If only the Justice Secretary was investing in alternatives to short sentences and in some of the important, aggressive and intensive work that is required instead of cutting some of those services around the country. I hasten to add that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has voted for some of those cuts. When the Justice Secretary talks about rehabilitation and community sentences—real alternatives—he should invest in them, too.

The shadow Secretary of State is talking tough on sentencing, but

“playing tough in order not to look soft makes it harder to focus on what is effective.”

Surely rehabilitation and education are the things that this House should be debating, not plea bargaining, as they will make the difference.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the importance of dealing with some of the real problems of those who commit offences and are found guilty, and I am all in favour of aggressive intervention within prison—and outside it for non-violent offenders. The problem is that the Justice Secretary, by accepting the 20% cut to his budget, is taking away some of the resources and skills that are required, especially with possibly 14,000 probation and prison staff losing their jobs. That expertise, skill and experience is being lost, arguably, when it is most required.

I have said on many occasions—this has been prayed against me this afternoon—at the Dispatch Box, to the Justice Secretary directly and in the media that I am happy to work with the Government and the Lord Chancellor to make changes in our criminal justice system to help reduce reoffending, cut crime and make our communities safer, based on what works where evidence shows its effectiveness, but nothing in the plans will reduce reoffending or do justice. They are a recipe for disaster and they confirm how out of touch the Government are with the real world.

I do not want this debate to descend into one about whether people are tough on crime or soft on crime. It is about what works and what is the right thing to do. It is about understanding how our criminal justice system has the full confidence of victims, the families of victims, the judiciary and the general public, all of whom are integral to its effectiveness. It is about understanding the value of justice and about willingness to pay the right price for it. I ask colleagues on both sides of the Chamber to think very carefully about this when voting on the motion.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“deplores the previous Government’s failure to tackle the national scandal of reoffending and its mismanagement of the justice system; notes that discounts for guilty pleas have been an established principle of common law for decades, and that they can speed up justice and spare victims and witnesses the ordeal of waiting and preparing to give evidence at trial; and welcomes the Government’s intention to overhaul sentencing to deliver more effective punishment for offenders and increased reparation for victims and to reform offenders to cut crime.”

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s coming to the Dispatch Box and moving the motion, which took me rather by surprise when it was tabled at the last minute last week. At one point, he gave a clear exposition of the opinions of the Leader of the Opposition on the encouragement that is given for an early guilty plea. No doubt we will discover at some stage how many days ago the Leader of the Opposition came to that conclusion, but I think it is rather more the right hon. Gentleman’s than his leader’s.

The shadow Secretary of State also, quite fairly sometimes when giving way to interventions, said that there were substantial parts of the proposed reforms with which he was in broad agreement with the Government, and he offered to work with my colleagues and me in that regard. However, he tried to get away from that by saying that he would support me if it were not for the reductions in public expenditure in my Department to which I am submitting. I regard it as being in the national interest to make reductions in public expenditure in most Departments. If the right hon. Gentleman believes that my Department should be totally exempt from any reductions in public expenditure at all, perhaps he would indicate in which other part of the public service he would volunteer reductions. With respect—I do not normally tender such advice—the weakness of the Labour party is that it does not have the first idea when it is going to stop denying the need for any reductions in public expenditure. There are some perfectly reasonable reductions to be made in the criminal justice system, but that is not the principle motive for reform. The principle motive is to make the criminal justice system better and to tackle some of the problems we have inherited, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have touched on.

The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was very generous in giving way and we all appreciated that, but there will be no Back-Bench speeches if I give way too frequently. I will give way in a second.

Let me get one thing out of the way first. I have always believed, along with every sensible person, that Britain needs a criminal justice system that is effective in properly punishing offenders for their wrongdoing and in protecting the public from further crime. When I took office as Justice Secretary it seemed to me perfectly obvious that that had to be the first priority for all my policies. That is self-obvious; it is a platitude. The Government’s policy, and my first duty, is to punish crime and have an effective system for protecting the public from further crime. The problem that I face, which causes the reforms, is the fact that I inherited a system that was not effective in protecting against offenders’ committing further crime or even in punishing offenders. So that is at the forefront of where we are going.

Without going over all the exchanges that we have just had, let me explain briefly what we have taken over, which causes the need for the proposed reform. Our prisons are pretty nasty, unpleasant places, far from the holiday camps they are sometimes made out to be. The people in most of them pass their days in a state of enforced idleness, quite a few of them making some tougher friends than they have had in the past, and not facing up to what they have done. That is not what I think of as a satisfactory and effective punishment. But a bigger scandal still is our system’s failure to protect the public from future crime committed by offenders after completion of their time inside. Reoffending rates in this country, as we have taken over the system now, are straightforwardly dreadful.

The Secretary of State has made much of the fact that short-term prison sentences lead to higher rates of reoffending than longer-term prison sentences. Given that his proposals now are to give people a 50% discount on their original sentence, plus they will be let out 50% of the way through their time in prison, and given that short sentences do not work, as he says, why is he so determined to make long prison sentences into short prison sentences?

The point that I make is not the one that hair-splits the variations between different forms of sentence. All our reoffending rates are very bad. I have no intention of addressing the sentencing tariffs for any offence in this country. I have no proposals for reducing the overall powers of the courts to deal with any crime. What we are talking about is the difference between someone who pleads guilty, particularly at an early stage, and someone who makes the witnesses and the victims go through the crime. That is what I will address.

Ever since I published the proposals five months ago, although we have not faced any clear alternatives or views from the Opposition, I faced a debate about my apparent desire to let prisoners out and reduce the sentences. I have no such desire; nor do I use statistics to illustrate the need for that. What I am talking about—

Let me continue briefly. I want to get on to the quite small proposal in our overall reforms that this debate and the publicity of the past few days have focused on. Let me explain what the reoffending problem is, because that is at the core of the Government’s policy and my proposals.

Within a year of leaving jail, half of Her Majesty’s guests will have been reconvicted of further offences. For adults released from short-term sentences the figure is 60%. For young offenders leaving custody it rises to three-quarters. The same people cycle around the system endlessly, costing endless suffering to victims and, for those released from short sentences alone, costing between £7 billion and £10 billion a year to society. That is the key part of the penal system that is not working. I offer this analysis because it throws into sharp relief the record of the Labour politicians who are now criticising bits of our proposed reforms. What I have just described is part of the legacy of the previous Government.

Let me finish describing the legacy of the previous Government, then we will move to the more constructive matter of my reforms and I will give way to my hon. Friend.

I have not forgotten, and I am sure the public have not forgotten either, what 13 years of Labour government was like in this field, despite the attempts of the right hon. Member for Tooting to skate over some of it. We had 13 years of eye-catching initiatives, schemes, meddling and prescription that made a complete Horlicks of the criminal justice system. We had more than 20 Criminal Justice Acts. Thousands of new criminal offences were created. Senior judges complained that

“Hell is a fair description of the problem of statutory interpretation”

when talking of this stream of legislation. We had a 39% increase in the number of prisoners in our jails—it was not planned and it was not policy—with the cost to taxpayers rising by two thirds in real terms.

And what for? That was meant to be the embodiment of the policy of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—an attempt to give reality to an admittedly rather catchy slogan. What we got was a sentencing policy so chaotic and badly managed that, as my hon. Friends quite rightly keep emphasising, the previous Government had to let out early 80,000 criminals, who promptly went on to commit more than 1,000 crimes, including alleged murders and one rape. We had a system under which more than 1,000 foreign national offenders were released without being considered for deportation—the total number of foreign prisoners in our jails doubled during Labour’s period in office. We had a system under which offenders serving community sentences in practice usually completed only one or two days of unpaid work each week. Above all, as I keep emphasising, there was the national scandal throughout Labour’s period in office—not a new problem—that the exorbitantly high reoffending rates went completely ignored.

Why was that? A recent quote from the right hon. Member for Tooting is worth repeating, as he gave an extremely good description of what went wrong and what was driving Labour’s policy. Speaking to the Fabian Society about New Labour’s record on this subject just two months ago, he said that

“playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective”.

He gets a murmur of approval from the Conservative Back Benches, and certainly from those of us who had to witness the effect of that policy.

Let me move on to our proposed reforms, including the one to which the Opposition’s motion refers. What are the problems that we are now tackling and that our large package of reforms seeks to address? First, criminal trials are needlessly long, drawn out and expensive. The court experience is often deeply unpleasant and almost always uncomfortable for victims, witnesses, jurors and most people who have anything to do with it. As I have said, at least half of all crimes are committed by people who have already been through the criminal justice system. More than one in 10 adults in prison have never been in paid employment, almost a fifth of prisoners who have used heroin did so for the first time while in prison, and one in five appears to have mental health problems. If we wish to take this subject seriously and really want to protect society and the victims of crime, we must recognise that that is the context of today’s debate.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way at last. He is talking about practical studies on how to deal with prisoners with mental health problems, such as the work done by the Bradley review. I will go along with him on those issues, but I do not understand what studies he has done on the precise issue that we are debating today and on the effectiveness of early guilty pleas. It is clear that already two thirds of Crown court cases that result in a conviction involve people who have pleaded guilty. More than 10,000 of those cases in 2008-09 were at the door of the court but could easily have been dealt with in a magistrates court. Why is he not acting to ensure that those guilty pleas happen in a magistrates court, rather than having this widespread policy that will lead to violent criminals being let off?

On Lord Bradley’s report and the problem of mentally ill people in prison, it seems plain from the hon. Lady’s intervention that she agrees with me. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I are working on ways to divert people from prisons, in proper cases and with proper protection of the public, to places where they can be more sensibly and suitably treated. In that respect the hon. Lady and I are in total rapport.

What I am suggesting about the system of guilty pleas, and the reason I have described the unpleasantness of going to court for most people who unwillingly go there as victims and witnesses, is that although most cases wind up with guilty pleas, more should do so and far too many such pleas are made ages after the event and at the last possible moment. I shall explain in a moment how we are addressing that problem, because the long-standing system we have at the moment is not working well enough.

Let me just take our proposal on early guilty pleas. Let me get into that. I am sorry to be unkind to my hon. Friend, but I have to bear in mind the people trying to be called, otherwise there will be no BackBenchers’ debate, and as someone who was until recently a Back Bencher for many years, I always used to find it irritating when we had a short Opposition day debate.

An advantage the hon. Gentleman will have one day.

From the proposals of the right hon. Member for Tooting, I cannot quite see any difference in principle between the two sides of the debate. It is, and always has been, a well recognised and fundamental practice in this country that those who lie their way through a trial and are ultimately found guilty should face a greater punishment than those who own up early, take responsibility for their crime and commit to making amends. That has taken place for at least the past 40 years. I suspect that anybody here who does enough research will find that, for the past century, people who fought it out and braved it out got a longer sentence than those who put their hands up early and pleaded guilty.

What is the purpose of that practice? The public are sometimes startled when they hear that that is the practice, though it always—always—has been in the courts of this country. The purpose is, as we have already stressed, because of the situation of victims and witnesses, above all. No one should underestimate the relief that is felt by anybody who is a victim of crime and has complained to the police about it when they are told that the offender is going to admit to it, and that they, the victim, are not going to be put through an ordeal in court. The witnesses feel equally relieved. It is far, far worse when someone fights on, because often the victim finds that on public evidence and in a court of law they are being accused of lying, of bad behaviour, of promiscuity or of whatever it is that the defendant is trying to run. That is why the justice system of this country has always included the practice. It also saves an awful lot of police time, an awful lot of Crown Prosecution Service costs and everything else.

I will give way on that point, but I just say finally that it is a pity practising lawyers have always referred to the practice as the guilty plea “discount”, because that is not actually the best way of explaining it to a sensible member of the public. I give way to my hon. Friend at last.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his generosity in giving way. He talks about what victims feel, and I always thought that victims felt very unhappy with the previous Government’s policy of letting many criminals out automatically halfway through their sentences. When in opposition we always used to talk about honesty in sentencing, so are we going to change that policy, or are people going to be let out automatically halfway through a sentence which has already been reduced by half as a result of the new measure under discussion?

Halfway through the sentence, people are released on licence, therefore they are liable to recall. If they reoffend, they are brought back; they are not free of their conviction for some time. We are going to address not just release on licence or supervision on licence, but what more can be done once people are out of immediate custody in order to increase the chances of their not reoffending. That is where we get into payment-by-results schemes, and that is why I already have a contract at Peterborough prison, which I inherited, and a new one at Doncaster prison, whereby we will pay more to providers who stop such people coming back when they leave prison. That is not for today, but it is a key part of our reforms, and I do not think that any Member opposes it.

Let me move on to what we are debating. We have the decades-long principle of offering for an early plea a reduction of up to one third on the sentence that a judge hands down. The previous Government made that clearer, because they calmly allowed the Sentencing Guidelines Council to spell out the one third, and it was actually made more binding on the courts in 2009. If anybody in the Opposition is against in principle the idea of what I say is unfortunately called a “discount” for a plea, why have they not mentioned it for the past 13 years? Why was the previous Government’s policy based on that principle and on the arguments that I have just raised? Why are we readdressing this?

Ah, here we are—somebody who supports the idea. The trouble is that if a discount is not given and the man gets to the court door and finds that there is not much coming off his sentence any more, he might as well instruct his lawyer to have a go and see whether the defence can shake the story. That is why no lawyer has ever objected to the discount for a guilty plea.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well that there is a big difference between a 30% discount and a 50% discount. Will he turn his mind to the evidence that has been suggested by the Sentencing Council, which says that the 50% plea discount will not bring forward any more criminals to plead guilty? What does he say to that?

I do not agree with that. It is not evidence; there are a variety of opinions. However, it is a perfectly good question. We have got down to the fact—I can be precise—that the difference appears to be 17%. That is what we are arguing about. I do not think that anybody in this House has any principled difference whatever on the policy.

The present system is not working effectively, so we have gone out to consultation on proposals that might improve the encouragement offered to people to plead guilty earlier. In over 10,000 cases listed, the trial stops right at the courtroom door; judge, jury, victims, police officers, probation officers are all amassed for a full trial, and then at the last minute the person pleads guilty. Those long delays are wrong, not only because of the cost to the police and the waste of time of everybody attending for any purpose connected with the trial, but because victims and serious witnesses have to endure the uncertainty of it all as they prepare for the ordeal of reliving the trauma of what are sometimes very harrowing experiences.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Tooting will forgive me for saying that saving a bit of cost to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the public purse might be advantageous, although I know that it was not new Labour’s approach. If we could get more of those involved in these cases to plead guilty earlier, an awful lot of victims would feel that they have been better treated by the system.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has enthusiastically set out the case for why he believes an increase in the discount of up to 50% should be carried through. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

This was an entirely collectively agreed policy on which we went out and consulted, so the answer is yes, of course. The Prime Minister runs a scrupulously collective Government, and I am an extremely loyal Minister much used to collective Government. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has much experience of collective Government, but I commend the system to him—and to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was of course fiercely embattled on one side in the previous Government.

We agreed that this was a reasonable proposition on which to consult because, as I said, the system that we inherited is not achieving the benefits that the previous Government presumably thought it might achieve when they set it up.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for generously allowing me a second bite of the cherry. He has correctly said that the Prime Minister signed up to the consultation, which ended on 4 March this year. He talked about collective responsibility. Can he confirm that last Tuesday morning the Cabinet Committee signed off on this proposal?

Even in a collective Government, one does not analyse what happens in Cabinet Committees before coming to one’s final conclusions. I am not going to disclose the contents of the Cabinet Committee’s proceedings for at least 20 years. The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that we do go to Cabinet Committees, but we have not yet finished our consultation process. [Interruption.] He is persisting, so let me repeat what I asked earlier: how many days ago did he and the Leader of the Opposition decide that they were going to run with this? Was it by any chance connected with the slight flurry of excitement in the media at the end of last week? He and his party, and his Front-Bench team, have not had a policy on this or any other subject to do with criminal justice for the past nine months. Let him study the processes that this Government follow, and no doubt they will guide him if ever he is lucky enough to get into great office.

The current system does not get enough early pleas and is a complete waste of resources. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and others in the legal system use up millions of hours preparing cases that never make it beyond the door of the courtroom. That has to be changed. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has called for

“a reorientation of our approach so that guilty plea cases can be dealt with as swiftly as possible, leaving us to devote our valuable time and resources to cases that really require them. That way we may just begin to tackle the delays that still bedevil criminal justice.”

We are still considering the responses to our Green Paper proposals to increase the maximum discount for the very earliest pleas to one half, and to then have a taper, to encourage the earliest plea and disincentivise the late plea. We received many calm and reasoned responses over many months. There was no loud opposition at all to the principle of the proposal until last week. The rush for this debate is slightly pathetic and slightly comic. I do not know where it came from. I have a feeling that the Leader of the Opposition, not yet having decided what he was for, was wandering the streets looking for a passing bandwagon and prodded the right hon. Member for Tooting into putting down a motion.

Some people are claiming that the proposal is simply to reduce the sentences available for criminals, and that is worrying some of my colleagues. As I began by emphasising, it is no part of our reforms to reduce sentences, the protection of the public or the punishment for serious crime. That is not what the Government or I are about. In response, I say very clearly that judges will continue to have discretion in setting the appropriate sentence in individual cases. I will not shorten the length of sentences available to them in any kind of criminal case. I do not think that the Opposition contest the principle, as has been emphasised. I do not understand the argument that they would be in favour of my reforms if they were not combined with saving public expenditure. That is not a compelling point. Reforms to the efficiency and effectiveness of the system are required.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I really should sit down soon.

Let me deal with what we are trying to reform and why. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), said in the Daily Mail on Friday that I should

“order a wholesale review of how the court system works”.

He went on:

“my own jury experience left me staggered by the sheer waste of time and public money resulting from the chaos in our courts.”

After 13 years, they say it is the judges. It is actually that the system does not facilitate the disposal of cases in the best possible way in the interests of victims, the police, the taxpayer and, above all, justice itself.

I have found quotations from the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who unfortunately is not in his place. He is the one who placed a more onerous obligation on judges to follow the early guilty plea guideline. Perhaps he is not here because, like me, he cannot understand what on earth got into the head of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in thinking that this was a suitable subject for debate.

I remember the right hon. Member for Tooting declaring in this House that he welcomed plans for a clear sentencing framework. In December he thought that they were

“a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy, entirely in keeping with the emphasis on punishment and reform that Labour followed in government”.—[Official Report, 7 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 171.]

I pay tribute to him for being so helpful and constructive in response to our proposals. It is a pity that he has been bullied into picking out bits and distorting them in this debate. The principle of a more efficient system of justice is not wrong, and the principle of the early guilty plea is not wrong—I am afraid that it is the state of the Opposition that is really wrong. That is what has brought the debate to the House.

The former Prime Minister’s old speechwriter, Phil Collins, apparently said last Friday:

“Labour don’t have a particularly strong position on crime of any kind”.

Well, we will help them. We have a policy, and it is very clear. We will reform the criminal justice system to focus it on punishing offenders, protecting the public and tackling the scourge of reoffending. We intend to make prisons places of hard work, not enforced idleness. We will get prisoners off drugs, and drugs out of prisons. We will toughen up the current weak and failed system of community sentences, and we will introduce a radical payment-by-results approach that will introduce innovative public and private sector solutions focused on what really matters, which is breaking the devastating cycle of crime.

Order. There is a six-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, but if Members can get their points across in less than six minutes, they will be helping their colleagues.

It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State, who presented a familiar face. There was a mixture of pragmatism, an element of bluster and just the occasional shaft of precision in his argument.

I begin by making an obvious point, and I do so at the risk of sounding like Michael Howard, now Lord Howard. We often lose sight of part of the meaning of what he said on the subject. Prison does work, at least to a limited extent. It seems to me an incontestable fact that while somebody is locked up in prison, they cannot commit offences out in the community. There have been many cases in my constituency over the years in which people have been given a custodial sentence and been taken out of the community, even if only for three or six months, and there has been an appreciable difference in the crime rate. Local police inspectors and senior officers in my area, and I am sure in other areas, will attest to the fact that prison works in those circumstances.

In my remaining time, I wish to cover two issues, the first of which is sentencing in general, which is the main subject of the debate. I approach it from the vantage point—or it might be a disadvantage point—of having sat on the Gage working group, which reported in July 2008. I will refer briefly to that report, then I want to say a word about community sentences.

The Gage working group examined, among many other things, the causes of the increased prison population to which the Secretary of State referred. We highlighted nine points. I will not go through all of them—time forbids, and in any event the Secretary of State has already referred to them, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has covered the same points. However, I wish to pick out one of the nine, because the Secretary of State made a great point of talking about reoffending. Point (5) in paragraph 2.2, on page 5 of the report, states that

“re-offending including breaches of supervision, licence recall, suspended sentences and community orders”

is one of the drivers that increase the prison population. I shall come back to that point later, but it is important to recognise that the prison population increased for reasons relating to the alternatives to prison sentences.

This month, the new Sentencing Council, which was established from the Gage commission and subsequent legislation, produced a survey, “Attitudes to guilty plea sentence reductions”, which is germane to this point—it is included in the note produced by the House of Commons Library. I shall focus on three of the survey’s findings that have some force, the first of which is a point that the Secretary of State used to criticised my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting. First, the survey states:

“The public assume that the key motivation for the guilty plea sentence reduction is to reduce resources (time and money)…There is a strong sense that the drive for cost savings should not impact on a system effectively delivering justice.”

Secondly, it states:

“For the general public, there was weak support for higher levels of reductions beyond the current guideline range of up to 33%”.

Thirdly, it states:

“The public (and some victims and witnesses) do not like the idea of a universal approach to reductions”.

There is therefore a strong disconnect between the Secretary of State’s proposals and how the public feel things need to be handled, which is a real problem. I accept that he is making a genuine attempt to address the issue—he is not one for eye-catching initiatives. However, he has not won over the public, and he certainly has not won over large numbers of his own Back Benchers, and for that—

I begin by saying that the Lord Chancellor should not have used words that led people to believe that he did not treat all rapes as serious crimes. However, when I set that against his attempt to create a rational debate on criminal justice policy, I know on whose side my sympathies, in general, lie. In addition, it was a tactical mistake of the Opposition to turn that into a resignation issue, and a further demonstration that we need such a rational debate.

Furthermore, the debate on extending the discount for early guilty pleas should not have become focused on rape, because it might be more appropriate for other crimes. I remain to be convinced that the enhanced discount will produce the full intended savings in the prison population. It is worth pursuing for some crimes and would be inappropriate for others. The current one third discount needs the careful exercise of the judge’s discretion, which is in some ways circumscribed too much, because distinctions must be drawn between cases in which a guilty verdict is almost inevitable, and those in which a guilty plea avoids lengthy proceedings with an uncertain outcome.

The aim of getting guilty pleas earlier is sensible, but many court-door pleas are based on the lack of early knowledge of the prosecution case, or a belief that witnesses will be intimidated into not turning up. Greater discounts will not of themselves change that. If the policy succeeds, it will enable other cases to be brought to trial more quickly, which would be a very welcome development, even if it might not assist in making financial savings because it could lead to more custodial sentences.

The public continue to see length of sentence as the only way of asserting society’s abhorrence of serious crimes, regardless of whether the long sentence has any deterrent effect, which it clearly does not in some cases, and regardless of whether the offender considers the sentence to be particularly punitive. Some offenders regard community punishments as more exacting than prison, which means bed and breakfast, and three meals a day. For many offenders, life outside is disorganised, dysfunctional and not particularly comfortable.

We must ask, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is asking, whether we are spending the vast resources that we commit to the criminal justice system in a way that is effective in reducing the crime and victimisation that result from reoffending. Resources are not unlimited, and it is our responsibility to use them to protect our constituents from becoming victims of crime. That requires a transfer of some resources from custody to community punishment, and from custody to preventing people, particularly young people, from getting involved in crime in the first place.

If we had only ever treated the symptoms of illness and devoted minimal effort to prevention and public health, we would have made very little progress in eradicating diseases and increasing life expectancy. We must apply some of that philosophy to preventing crime and reoffending. Every crime and instance of reoffending that is not prevented makes victims of our constituents. We need a rational debate on how we organise policy so that we prevent people from becoming involved in crime and from returning to it.

Further to the right hon. Gentleman’s medical analogy, does he agree that it is highly likely that people would stop prescribing a medicine if it did not work 70% or 80% of the time?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. What is more, we would be better to prevent people from getting the condition in the first place than to give them medicine late in the day.

Successive reports of the Select Committee on Justice have tried to launch, support and encourage a rational debate on our criminal justice policy. That, I believe, is what the Lord Chancellor has been trying to do, and I encourage him to continue in that endeavour.

Although I do not agree with a blanket 50% discount, I accept the sincerity of Government Ministers in trying to reform sentencing. Despite the Lord Chancellor’s denials, the problem is that the Treasury has set those Ministers a slightly unreasonable cost-cutting agenda, which will inevitably undermine some of their ambitions. Cost cutting simply will not give us better sentencing outcomes, and as I am sure the Lord Chancellor knows, effective community alternatives to custody are not a cheap option.

Any review of sentencing needs to take account of the public and demonstrate that both the politicians and the experts charged with the reforms genuinely listen to and take on board the public’s concerns. In that respect, we need to start with victims and ensure that their needs are at the centre. We need to ensure that they are not forgotten or tacked on as an afterthought as courts focus too much attention on the offence and the offence tariff rather than on the impact of the crime.

The public need to know that the money being spent makes a difference and that the justice system belongs to them and not to the professionals or the experts, or even worse, to the offenders, as it sometimes seems. If the Lord Chancellor really wants to protect victims and witnesses in the judicial process, we perhaps need to prise some elements of the justice system from those that currently hog the scene. This is not about blaming judges, but I am not convinced that the current structure of our courts and the selection of judges and—in some cases—magistrates, are the best that they could be. Their sentences frequently do not make sense to most normal people, and at times, they seem to be totally out of touch with the communities that experience most of the crime.

My hon. Friend mentions victims. I have just been doing the maths on this. Someone who is convicted of the offence of causing death by careless driving while over the proscribed limit will end up with something like nine months. How is that fair to the victim?

That is my point about focusing more on the impact of the crime.

We need to return to the experiment with community courts for lower-level crimes. That kind of approach has public support, even if the legal establishment, which is well represented in the House, is sceptical, and many of my constituents would welcome attention being paid to these matters. Thinking about what the Lord Chancellor said, it seems to me that we need a rethink. This is not about who runs the prisons, but about how they are run. We need to establish the value of short custodial sentences. What does a 10-week sentence set out to achieve? More importantly, we need to know, as he acknowledged, why it is easier to get drugs and other contraband in prison than outside. [Interruption.] Members can say, “It’s your legacy”, but it is a legacy that has been developing for years, and if we reduce the debate to that sort of silly, cheap remark, any benefits we might derive from the time available for debate will be lost. That is why they are wasting their time with that kind of muttering.

I want to know why this continues to happen. Why do we keep reading about prisoners taking us to court? Why can anyone in prison for more than a few months leave still unable to read and write? If the Lord Chancellor really wants to help and to demonstrate that the things he has spoken about today will be activated, he needs to tell us what he is going to do, and to do more than simply repeat the concerns in the Chamber.

We need to clarify the purpose of custody. The priorities for long-term prisoners are straightforward. They should be about security and then a long path to rehabilitation. However, for the short term and the frequent offenders that he mentioned, surely we need to have more credible forms of punishment and restitution, and more imaginative sentencing. That might mean ending the divide between prison and the community. Why not have prison sentences for evenings or weekends? Why not curb leisure time? Surely what matters is that the time is used constructively, and that any activity is not confused with leisure time or voluntary activity; it has to be about punishment, control and making amends.

The public want to see and hear punishment as well as rehabilitation. There have to be fewer opportunities for people to avoid responsibility for their actions, and courts need to entertain fewer excuses. I agree with the Lord Chancellor, but where in his policy are there clear directions and obligations in sentencing? I want to know that there will be rigorous testing, directive counselling and control for offences relating to substance abuse. If the Government were to take us along that path, rather than spending so much time repeating an analysis we all broadly share, and if they were to make clear their intentions, we might be able to have a much more constructive debate, instead of one in the terms being debated today.

Nevertheless, we are having this debate because the Government have set out to cut prison numbers, largely on a cost-cutting basis. The Lord Chancellor has refused to give details of exactly how he is going to provide credible—

Although I am speaking in favour of this Opposition day motion, I think it is the height of hypocrisy for the Labour party to lead the charge on crime, given that it presided over the automatic release of people halfway through their sentences, which created many unnecessary victims of crime. As we have heard from my hon. Friends today, the Labour party released 18 days early almost 80,000 prisoners who between them went on to carry out an additional 1,512 offences, including three murders, rapes and assaults, while they should have still been in prison. One convict, originally jailed for battering a woman to death, was released, only to lure a 10-year-old boy back to a flat, where he threatened to slash his throat with a craft knife before raping him. That is not what I call being tough on crime, despite what the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) would like us to believe.

I would like to clarify that, no doubt contrary to popular opinion, as a Government Member I do not particularly enjoy voting in favour of Opposition day motions. However, the Justice Secretary’s recent proposals are simply unacceptable to the majority of my constituents and the British public as a whole.

I can assure my hon. Friend that they are also unacceptable to the people of Brigg and Goole. Is not the record of the previous Government which he described exactly why we entered the election promising tougher sentences, to end the early release scheme and to be more honest with the public about our plans?

My hon. Friend is right. It is astonishing that some of our hon. Friends, who were happy to enter the election promising to send more criminals to prison, and to put in place longer sentences and honesty in sentences, are now advocating sending fewer people to prison for a shorter time. I did not tell that to my constituents when I stood in the election.

Forgive me, I am not learned or a lawyer, but we have not suggested that fewer people would go to prison, have we? We have suggested that prison sentences could be cut by up to 50%, but that it would be for the judges to decide. It would not necessarily be 50%.

My hon. Friend is clutching at straws. The Secretary of State made it clear that as a result of the proposal fewer people would be in prison. That is the whole purpose of the measure. My hon. Friend ought to reflect on the fact that this is an arbitrary proposal, because there is absolutely no evidence suggesting that more people will plead guilty as a result. If that does not happen, will the Secretary of State return to the House in a few months suggesting a three-quarters discount for pleading guilty in order to get a few more convictions? Where will it end? Why not scrap prison sentences altogether? This is a slippery slope. It is ludicrous and not based in evidence.

Most people think that punishment is not heavy enough. It has been estimated that between 2007 and 2009, criminals on probation have been responsible for 121 murders and 44 cases of manslaughter, along with 103 rapes and 80 kidnappings. In total, they were responsible for more than 1,000 serious violent or sexual offences in the two years from April 2006, while almost 400 more suspects are awaiting trial. Most people looking at these figures would conclude that too few, not too many, people were being sent to prison, and most would conclude that people are not being sent to prison for long enough, not that they should be let out even earlier.

As we have heard, a senior judge, Lord Justice Thomas, warned that as a result of these proposals, a rapist facing five years in prison could get off with a sentence halved to just 30 months by pleading guilty earlier. However, because of what the previous Government did, which the Secretary of State appears to support, that offender would then be released after only 15 months behind bars. Fifteen months for a five-year sentence! That is what is happening under a Conservative-led Government.

The example given by my hon. Friend is fanciful, because the average sentence for rape is eight years. Sentences will vary but in the end the judge will decide what justice and the seriousness of the offence justify. Needless public alarm is caused because the public find it difficult to know what the sentences are. If it reassures my hon. Friend, however, I can say that I would regard someone being released from the prison part of their sentence after 15 months as quite inadequate in a case of rape.

The Secretary of State and I differ. He seems to think it perfectly reasonable for somebody to get eight years in prison and serve only two, but I think that it is unacceptable. [Hon. Members: “He didn’t say that.”] I am disappointed he thinks that somebody who is given an eight-year sentence should be given a 50% discount for an early plea, reducing the sentence to four years, and so be released after two. [Hon. Members: “No, he didn’t say that.”] That means two years for an eight-year sentence, which to me and most people is totally unacceptable.

No, there is not time.

That is what the Secretary of State is proposing. That is what happened to Gabrielle Browne, who sparked the debate when she questioned the Secretary of State—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman will be heard. Members will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate in due course. This is quite unacceptable when he is speaking.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Gabrielle Browne was attacked by an African immigrant, Mohammed Kendeh, who had just been let out of prison four months into a one-year sentence. He had sexually assaulted five other women in the same park a year before, but was spared jail for those offences. Non-custodial sentences do not appear to work in such cases. Similarly, in a recent case in west Yorkshire a serial rapist was freed from jail early only to commit another sickening attack. He had subjected a string of women to terrifying rapes and sexual assaults as far back as 1984, but served only eight years of a 14-year sentence for raping an 18-year-old woman. Upon his release, he carried out a further rape on a 24-year-old as she left a nightclub.

We will get more and more such cases, with people serving more and more derisory prison sentences, then let out to create more and more unnecessary victims of crime. When people with no offending history are caught for crimes and have to wait to be convicted, it is understandable that it should take time to bring them to justice. However, it is unforgivable for people in government to preside over a system that lets people out of prison earlier than necessary, in order for them to go on and commit more crimes and create more victims of crime. We need to review the current situation, in which people are released from prison early.

People keep telling me that Scandinavian countries are marvellous when it comes to these things, so I went to Denmark to see at first hand what they did. One thing that never seems to come out is that in Denmark, people are not automatically released halfway through their sentences. They are released only if they behave well; and in fact, 30% of prisoners in Danish prisons serve their full sentences because they are not deemed safe to release from prison early. Those are the things that the Secretary of State should be looking at, not trying to have people serve lower sentences in the first place. Indeed, it is his proposals that are causing the British public to lose confidence in the British criminal justice system and in this place.

Last week I asked the Secretary of State to read some research commissioned by Lord Ashcroft into the opinion of the public, victims of crime and police officers. Some 80% of those polled thought that sentences were too lenient. Similarly, when asked whether they expected the new coalition Government to be tougher on crime than the last Labour Government, 50% of those polled said that they expected them to be tougher, while 9% said less tough. When asked their views now that they had seen the Secretary of State in action for a year, only 13% thought that the Government were tougher, while 23% thought that they were less tough.

These proposals have to go. I very much fear that if the Secretary of State does not listen to the widespread opposition to these plans, then for us to restore our reputation as a party of law and order, he will have to go as well.

I want to talk about this Government’s record on crime where women are victims or offenders, and to show that the latest attempt to propose a 50% discount for early guilty pleas—which was offered up by the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), as doing women rape victims a favour—is a desperate ploy that could only be the product of a men-only Department which, to be frank, just does not get it when it comes to women and crime.

It is not just Ministers’ fault, however: when I was a Home Office Minister working with the National Offender Management Service, I discovered that officials believed that women offenders in prisons were basically exactly the same as men and were to be treated the same. The consequence was an appalling deluge of women self-harming and killing themselves in jail. I realised that we needed a comprehensive rethink of the issue, and helped to commission Baroness Corston to look at it. She came up with an excellent report that showed many of the ways that prisons dealt ineffectually and unfairly with women, who are more likely to be jailed for non-violent offences than men, more likely to be remanded when they are later found innocent, and very likely to have been victims of violence themselves before committing any offence.

It seems that we are getting the same kind of cloth-eared view on how women as victims are treated. We need to approach them in the same way that Baroness Corston approached women offenders: by really looking at how to reduce future crime, by ensuring that the children of offending women are less likely to become offenders themselves, by listening to victims and those in the system, and by doing a careful study rather than what I believe we are facing, which is a back-of-the-envelope calculation—“This’ll get me off the hook with the Treasury.”

Let us look briefly at Labour’s record, which Government Members have mentioned extensively. The most striking thing in relation to rape is the increase of sentences served between 2005 and 2009, the period for which we have the most recent figures. Sentences served increased by 14 months over that period because of determined work by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and Baroness Scotland, who worked together to start taking unduly lenient sentences back to court and ensure that dangerous rapists were not released early. We then realised that we were not doing enough, so we commissioned Baroness Stern to look at how rape was treated in the criminal justice system. She was impressed by a number of the changes that we had made, including introducing specialist police units—which are now due to be cut by the Home Office—increasing by 15% the number of rapists convicted, improving the way cases were dealt with in court, and introducing specialist prosecutors in all 42 Crown Prosecution Service areas. Of course, the number of CPS areas has now been cut, so although every area might claim to have specialist prosecutors, I doubt whether there will be as many as there were.

The difference between that and what we see now is carefully thinking through what will make a difference. I am genuinely shocked by the Minister, who I do not think is a bad man. I share his desire to reduce reoffending, and I recognise his point that short sentences—those under four years—are ineffectual. That is one of the reasons why I want to ensure that no rapist is in jail for less than four years. He said that there was no loud opposition to the proposal. What that means is that he has not bothered to read the representations that women’s organisations made in response to his Green Paper. I am afraid that we are seeing a cloth-eared, don’t-get-the-women approach from this Department. I want Ministers to think again. We were told that victims’ organisations would really welcome the proposal because victims would not have to go through the horror of a trial. Yes, rape trials are horrible—they are very degrading for the victim—but if the trial does not go ahead, then although the judge hears the plea in mitigation, he never hears how the victim’s life has been destroyed.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady has actually read the Green Paper. One of the things that it addresses is the right of victims—a right that they never really had under the Government whom she supported—to give a proper impact statement on how the crime has affected them. If she cares to read the Green Paper, we will not have these silly points made.

I was one of those Home Office Ministers who introduced the concept of victim impact statements, so I am well aware of that, but the problem is that with early guilty pleas, that has not usually been the case in practice. From my reading of the Green Paper it is not clear to me what will happen: will Ministers automatically ensure that the victim impact statement can fully outline what has happened to the victim?

I do not believe therefore that what is proposed is being done to make the victim’s experience better. There is no evidence of that, because there is no evidence of careful listening to victims’ organisations, which is what I would have expected had that been the case. I would have expected real engagement with women’s organisations that deal regularly with the victims of rape and other sexual violence. According to the British crime survey, one in 250 women were victims of sexual assault in the last year. This is a widespread offence, and we are not taking it sufficiently seriously when the Secretary of State for Justice can say, “Well, there’s rape and then there’s rape.” We need to change the way we deal with this issue. We need to be really serious about these issues. Although there is a case for discounts for early guilty pleas, they should not be universally applied to people who have been responsible for some of the most violent and degrading crimes, and his Green Paper does not stop that—

We have about 4,000 women in British prisons. A small fraction of them need to be locked up; the vast majority do not. Most of these women are serving very short-term sentences, with 64% serving less than six months. Those serving short sentences are not subject to any supervision on release, and their prison sentences are too short to provide proper rehabilitation. The result is a vicious circle of family breakdown, chaos, reoffending and huge cost to the taxpayer.

Women in prison are a highly vulnerable group, and they commit crime because of this vulnerability and because of earlier failures to protect and support. More than half have suffered domestic violence, and a third have suffered sexual assault. Up to 80% have mental health problems. Many of them self-harm, and many have attempted suicide. More than half have alcohol problems, and 27% have drug problems. When a woman goes to prison, her children suffer too, with homes being repossessed and children ending up in care. Some women are pregnant when they go to prison, and the sight of babies and toddlers spending their earliest moments in a situation that is the complete opposite of a family home is an affront to my senses as a mother, a family lawyer and a politician. When a man goes to prison, a woman is usually there for him when he gets out. When a woman goes to prison, the man is often nowhere to be seen.

The Government’s plans to reform the criminal justice system set out in the Green Paper helpfully recognise that women offenders have a different profile of risk and need. I was encouraged recently by the response of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), to my parliamentary question on the effectiveness of short-term prison sentences for women. He said:

“Short-term sentences for men have proven pretty ineffective, and I think that short-term sentences for women are even more ineffective…We support the conclusions of the Corston report…we are committed to reducing the number of women in prison, and a network of women-only community provision is being developed to support robust community sentences.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 163.]

Those community offender projects for women, to which the Minister referred, provide a genuine alternative to custody. They are run by charities that work in partnership with the police, the prisons, the probation service and health and social services, and they provide wrap-around support for the woman. They help her to stabilise her life. They find her somewhere to live and ensure that she is safe. They start to deal with mental health and addiction problems, and they allow magistrates to sentence a woman to community penalties with confidence. Early evaluations of the projects look very good, in terms of reducing costs and the rate of reoffending. Those projects have been funded by the Ministry of Justice, and I hope that such funding will be continued, notwithstanding the difficult financial climate.

The answer to a parliamentary question that I asked revealed that, for every age group and for every offence, women are already far less likely than men to be given to a custodial sentence. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to stop women going to prison is for them not to commit those crimes in the first place?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but this is why we are looking at robust community alternatives to prison.

It would be a missed opportunity if these projects were not expanded, and an absolutely travesty if they were cut. We need a strong message from the Government that prison is not the right place for women who pose no threat to the public. I accept that the public and the judges need to feel more confident about community sentences, and their scepticism must certainly be dealt with. Community sentences are not fluffy options. They are intensive interventions that absolutely challenge a woman to change her life. They will also enable her to see that her future could look very different from her past.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on her wonderful, thought-provoking speech. I have not heard the case for women prisoners articulated so well since I came to the House.

There is a gaping hole at the heart of the Government’s Green Paper on sentencing: it is the voice of the victim. Rehabilitation is important to victims. They want to know that their experience has not been in vain. They are anxious to prevent other people from becoming victims, and they want to know that their ordeal—traumatic, distressing and damaging though it was—can produce a change that will help others. For that reason, victims want certainty in sentencing. Rehabilitation is often valued by victims, but punishment and reparation must come first.

Why should victims believe that rehabilitation will work when their own experience of the criminal justice system is so lacking? The Government assure us, sometimes with the best of intentions, that rehabilitation will succeed, at the same time as proposing that sentences should be cut and fewer people should be incarcerated. Our criminal justice system involves a deal between the citizen and the state. We do not personally catch and punish others who have wronged us; we stand back and trust professionals to take care of justice on our behalf. We are entitled, however, to expect transparency in return. That is the deal.

Rehabilitation acts both ways. We can all understand why the rehabilitation of offenders is important, but what about the rehabilitation of victims? Victims often feel that they serve a longer sentence than the perpetrator, yet they are entitled to less. There is not enough trauma care for those who are suddenly bereaved. There is inadequate counselling on offer for children, and counselling is sometimes delayed until after a trial, for fear that it might contaminate the evidence. That irresponsible and unnecessary practice must stop.

I gave evidence for the prosecution in a murder trial in 1986. In the middle of my evidence, the plea was changed. The people sitting behind me were seriously grateful that they no longer had to go into the witness box. Sometimes, victims such as those are grateful for any method that allows them to avoid having to go through their experience again in court. I make that point only because I think that it is valid.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I accept that what he says is true. My point is that increasing the discount to 50% will not in any way improve the experience of victims.

It is true that victims benefit from efficiency in the criminal justice system. Unnecessary and costly administration helps no one, but the attempt to make savings by cutting sentences by up to 50% in return for a guilty plea is not a fair way of going about this. Justice is at the heart of the system, and it must not become its casualty.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s ideas in the Green Paper on work in prisons. It is important and beneficial to victims that the system should turn out people who are able to lead law-abiding lives, and I am pleased that he has suggested that wages earned by prisoners should be used to compensate victims. He needs to ensure that that happens. A fund needs to be established in which the money can be collected centrally for redistribution to victims, because they generally do not want the ongoing regular direct relationship with an offender that a monthly direct debit can entail. A centrally co-ordinated victims fund to assist with reparation would help in that regard.

No one seems to believe that community sentences are real punishment. They are seen as second best, the soft option or the cheapest option. Sadly, that is all too often true. Community sentences should be highly visible, and that includes making the offenders themselves highly visible. The public must be responsible for nominating work schemes, and the probation service needs to see tough punishment as part of its brief. Community sentences should be tough, physical, intensive and of direct benefit to the community that has suffered. Breaches should be rigorously enforced.

Of greatest concern, however, are the Government’s proposals to alter indeterminate sentences for public protection. No offender convicted of rape, sexual assault or child abuse should be released without an assessment of their risk to the public. The Green Paper assumes that non-dangerous IPP inmates are serving longer than they need to. I know that inmates and their families are arguing for this. Where, however, is the voice of the victim? Could it be that parole boards are making the right call in keeping us safe from some of the most predatory offenders in the system? We should let them continue to do so.

Reduced sentences for guilty pleas have been thoroughly debated in recent days, but the Government need to find other ways to ease the experience of the criminal justice system for victims. An offender who pleads guilty late in the process should be penalised, not rewarded, for an early plea. How an offender pleads has nothing to do with the seriousness of the crime—crime should be punished, rather than the ability to play the system be rewarded. The Government’s proposals will not encourage more people to plead guilty early. Such decisions are based on the likely outcome and the strength of evidence, not on the discount offered. All the current proposal does is alienate victims; it is wrong.

The Government need to make the light by which the needs of victims can be seen. So far, this is missing from their proposal. Reoffending rates improved in the last decade, but it will be a long time before rehabilitation will be good enough for it to be seen as more important in sentencing than reparation or punishment. The Government will be judged on who they prioritise in criminal justice—and this must be the victim.

I think that the Opposition Front-Bench team do their Back Benchers a great disservice; we have heard some interesting and thoughtful contributions, especially from the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth). Once again, however, we have seen the Opposition Front-Bench team jumping on the bandwagon of the week. Three weeks ago it was Sure Start and the Opposition showed their commitment to that in the Opposition day debate with only four or five Members present, yet there were dozens on the Government Benches. Last week, we had the Opposition day debate on the health service, at which the car crash unfolded because Labour Members were unable to attack the proposals effectively. Now, today, we see an attack on Government proposals that were published in the autumn of last year, which had been supported in large part by the Leader of the Opposition and his Front-Bench team. Yet they have just discovered now that they find some truck with some elements of it. This shameless and shameful opportunism would be extraordinary in any other group of people, were it not for the fact that this Opposition have shown themselves to be experts in turning opportunism into a low art.

At the end of last year, the Opposition spokesman said:

“I am not going to say Ken Clarke is being soft on crime… because he is asking the right questions about rehabilitation rates”.

What of the speech of the Leader of the Opposition to the Labour party conference just minutes after he had been made the new leader? He said that

“when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime… This new generation must find a new way of conducting politics.”

What a new way of conducting politics—to agree to radical and brave proposals by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary and come here and attack them the minute the bandwagon is passing. The Opposition are so misguided because for the first time in a generation a Government have been brave enough to make difficult proposals that will help victims in the long run.

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s forthright views on opportunism. He was not a Member before the last election, but his party, including his leader, were very good at opportunism at that time. Has he tested any of these ideas on the electorate of Ipswich?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Although there are many things on which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who spoke previously, I differ on this issue. At the last election, I was very plain with people when they spoke about prison reform. The hon. Gentleman might know that I have had a long-running interest in the subject. I told people in Ipswich what I am about to explain to him now—that our current penal system does victims a disservice.

It is not a difficult equation to understand, although I know the Opposition do not understand problems in this way. It was the same with the hospital debate. Instead of looking at how to improve cancer survival rates, they look at the structures of GP fundholding. In this instance, they look not at how to improve the experience of victims or how to bring down crime, but at how many people we are sentencing and for how long. They are looking at processes and inputs rather than results. If we turn that on its head and look at the victim rather than the criminal, as we have been asked to do, we might find a different way out.

We want to do something for victims, of whom there are too many. We wish to cut crime. We know that the majority of crime is committed by people who have already offended once or many times previously. What do we do about it? Do we try to increase reoffending rates or do we try to reduce them? It is the experience of Members of all parties that the prison, probation and the community service system are failing on every single account to encourage rehabilitation and to cut the number of victims.

I thank my hon. Friend for his brave speech. No victim of crime in Brigg and Goole has ever written to me to say that they wished the people who had committed crimes against them had served shorter sentences. On this issue, he seems to be separating out the idea of prison from rehabilitation, but is it not possible to have both prison and rehabilitation by conducting rehabilitation in prison?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, as he will find out if he listens a little further. I am a great proponent of tougher prison sentences, of making them longer for certain crimes and of taking away the televisions and the PlayStations in favour of making prisoners do hard work during the day, learn a skill and work towards being creative members of society on coming out of prison.

The problem with the case of Labour Members, some of whom have made an alliance with some of the more extreme Conservative Members [Hon. Members: “Name them.”] No, they know who they are! It is an interesting alliance. [Interruption.] Just wait and they will be proposing flogging next. What Labour Members do not understand is that for short custodial sentences, we are seeing increasing rates of reoffending, which means only more victims. That is not to say that we should be putting people on pansy community sentencing; we should not, because many of those sentences do not work. Why can we not follow the example of the Germans, who have a prison population of 72,000 people in an overall population of 80 million; or of France, whose prison population is 60,000 in an overall population equivalent to our own? In both jurisdictions, crime is lower because their community rehabilitation systems are stronger, especially for short-term custodial sentences.

We have heard from Members representing constituencies in the north-east and the north-west, where more than two thirds of court cases crack before their end either through the incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service or because of the guilty plea being made either mid way through or at the end of the trial. None of that does anything to help victims, which is important, and on top of that it commits millions of pounds that could be spent on picking up criminals, putting them in court, convicting them and keeping them in prison if they are a danger to the public.

Let me finish with another point about criminals. The victims commissioner, Louise Casey, said of these cracked trials that they increase “anxiety among victims” and cause great fear among witnesses at the “prospect of giving evidence”. Why cannot Opposition Members congratulate the Justice Secretary on bringing proposals to the House that will reduce anxiety among victims and help to improve the prospects of bringing people to justice rather than just jump once again on to a passing media bandwagon? I am afraid that they also show once again that in the absence of their own policy, the Opposition have nothing to offer this country—not even an apology for their grievous mistakes over the past 13 years.

We would all like to see prison population decline, but for the right reasons. We would like to see a continuation of the reduction in crime that took place when we were in government. I will not dwell on the devastating effects that the drastic cuts in the police budgets are likely to have on crime detection rates, as my hon. Friends will raise that issue in this evening’s second debate.

We all want to see a reduction in crime and Labour Members believe that crucial factors in reducing crime include ensuring good education opportunities for all our young people; ensuring job opportunities for all; ensuring that everyone, including those on the lowest wages, have enough to live on; providing proper mental health services in a fully funded public national health service; and tackling issues such as drug and alcohol addiction.

As was pointed out by members of the audience during last week’s “Question Time”—prison officers and prisoners alike—when people do end up in jail, it is important that proper help and support is provided to rehabilitate prisoners so that they can be reintegrated in society. However, that requires funding and space, which was one of the reasons for our plan to provide more prison places. Many electors thought that that was also the policy of the Conservative party, and they must feel badly let down, because they now understand that the Conservatives’ policy is simply to reduce sentences for violent crime. Some new prisons, such as the prison that we planned to build in north Wales, would also have enabled prisoners to remain closer to their communities, with important consequences in terms of family contact and increased chances of successful release.

Constituents of mine are horrified by the Government’s proposals. They are horrified by the idea that sentences could be reduced by 50% in the case of all offences in the event of early guilty pleas. They are horrified by the fact that those offences would include violent crimes such as rape, and by the fact that a convicted rapist could serve only 15 months in jail. As the Secretary of State will know, in 2003 Labour introduced the Sentencing Guidelines Council, the forerunner of the Sentencing Council, which came into being in 2010 and is charged with promoting a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing. It opposes the 50% reduction, believing that an offender’s decision to plead guilty should not be allowed to reduce a sentence by more than 35%. It has also said—this is for the information of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer)—that the reduction will not increase the tendency of defendants to plead guilty.

I am particularly concerned by the Government’s attitude to rapists and their victims. Last year they proposed anonymity for rape defendants, sending the message that such defendants needed more protection than others because their accuser was more likely to be lying. That was a disgraceful suggestion and proposal. It is hard enough for a woman to report a rape and undergo the dreadful ordeal of having to relive the experience in order to see justice done, without her being made to feel even more undermined because the defendant’s right to anonymity implies that she is lying. I am glad to report that following fierce opposition from Labour Members—led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—the proposal was dropped.

It was even more depressing to hear the Secretary of State’s rather flippant comments about rape last week. Particularly depressing was his comment about date rape. Date rape can involve deception, betrayal of trust, and drugging someone with no regard for the harmful effects that that can have: acts undertaken deliberately to violate the victim’s body. There is nothing glamorous about that. A rape in those circumstances is still a rape, a disgusting, despicable act. The rapist deliberately places his victim in circumstances that could be life-endangering, not only carrying out the rape but possibly even thinking, at the back of his mind, that the effects—or perceived effects—of memory loss may make the victim less likely to seek help very shortly after the crime, and that the victim may have considerable difficulty in describing events or being believed. It certainly does not help for the Secretary of State to imply that that is somehow a less serious kind of rape.

All rapes, and all violent crimes, must be taken very seriously, and their perpetrators must be punished properly. My constituents and I certainly do not want to see a 50% reduction in sentences in exchange for early guilty pleas by those who have committed violent crimes, and I sincerely hope that the Government will drop their plans as soon as possible.

I have been a Member of Parliament for a year, but I do not think that I have ever smelt such rank political hypocrisy as that which is emanating from the Opposition Benches. I practised as a criminal barrister for 16 years, just a little longer than the tenure of the last Government. During those 16 years, and particularly during my 13 years at the criminal Bar, I saw almost daily the harsh reality of their sentencing policy, a policy which led to the present chaotic state of our prisons and which neither added up nor delivered all that they claimed it would do.

As Members may recall, Labour claimed to be tough on crime. They used to say that they were turning the key on the prison gates and bars in order to secure someone, but at the same time they could not push people out too quickly. That is why we saw the release schemes enjoyed by so many people during their time in office, and why I asked the shadow Secretary of State about overcrowding. That is the last Government’s legacy, and that is the reality of Britain’s prisons today.

What has the policy of the last Government meant in the real world in which some of us worked before we came to this place? I had clients aged 18 and 19 who were on remand, which meant that they were innocent, and in adult prisons because there were no places for them in young offenders’ institutions. I had clients who, when I asked them whether they been to see their drug worker, said that they had been unable to arrange an appointment because of the overcrowding. I had clients—as I now have constituents—who were willing to go on courses in order to be rehabilitated and educated, and who could not obtain places on those courses. That is the legacy of the Labour party. It is an absolute disgrace, and it is even more disgraceful that they are in denial about it.

Does the hon. Lady agree with the policy of reducing sentences by 50%? If so, given all her professional experience during her 16 years of practice as a barrister, how does she think it can be justified, and does she think it will work?

I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. The reply to the first is yes. Being a lawyer himself, he will know two things. First, there is a good argument that in lengthy, tedious, multi-handed fraud cases, allowing a judge to give a 50% discount will do what everyone wants and crack heads together, and that it will work. Secondly, it is dishonest of Labour Members to criticise this Government for proposing a 50% increase when the present law allows it¸ as the hon. Gentleman well knows—or, at least, should know, as he is meant to be a lawyer. At present a judge has discretion, if he or she so chooses, to allow a discount of more than 50%, depending on the circumstances of the case.

My complaint, which I have expressed in public before, is about those who are excessively prescriptive and tie our judges’ hands. One of the big failings of the Labour party was that in all aspects of policy, it consistently failed to trust professionals: our teachers, our nurses and our doctors. It also failed to trust our judges. If we freed their hands and enabled them to decide the appropriate sentence given all the circumstances of a case, there would be greater honesty in our sentencing policy, and there would undoubtedly be better sentencing.

There are many issues that I would have liked to discuss, but I shall mention only two more. The first relates to events that took place last week. I say this as a woman: I find it offensive when the issue of rape is turned into a women’s issue, taken up by people and used as a political football. As I have said in this place before, some victims of rape are male, and a considerable number of victims of rape are children. It is not a women’s issue, and some of the hysteria that we heard last week did no one any favours.

I suspect that the hon. Lady may be partly referring to me. Yes, there are male victims of rape—although there are fewer than one in 10—and of course there are child victims of rape. However, the issue affects women much more than men. That is the point I was making.

I was not referring to the hon. Lady, whom I congratulate on the work that she did in enabling not just women but children to come forward and give evidence, and indeed improving sentencing. On the issue of men, she gave the statistic of 1%. I am always a bit cynical about statistics. [Hon. Members: “It was 10%.”] Forgive me: it was 10%. I strongly suspect that, because of the stigma attached to rape, many more men are raped than come forward, but let us hope we can debate that on another occasion.

My next point highlights why many Members, certainly on the Government Benches, feel somewhat cynical when the issue of rape is raised. Can the shadow Justice Secretary explain why in this place last week the Leader of the Opposition was for the first time flanked by two women—the deputy leader of the Labour party and the shadow Home Secretary, but not the shadow Justice Secretary—when he questioned the Prime Minister about the various comments made by the Lord Chancellor? Was that a deliberate ploy? Did the Leader of the Opposition surround himself with women to make some point? I ask that question because rape is not a women’s issue; it concerns everybody, and many of us are particularly concerned about the effect it has on children.

I am greatly in favour of the Government’s sentencing proposals. Their document on the matter is radical and brave, and I agree with the many comments made by Government Members about short sentencing.

Does my hon. Friend think that the victims she has met during her career will be reassured to hear that we are proposing to cut sentences by, perhaps, a half? How will that go down with the victims my hon. Friend has met?

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that one of the difficulties that arise in our discussions on sentencing is when we speak about issues with a lack of information and understanding. First, let me say that victims are not all the same. They come in different shapes and sizes, and with different experiences. Sometimes—although very rarely—victims want to give evidence in order to exorcise what has happened to them. I am not for one moment talking here about rape victims, but this point applies to certain other categories of victim, such as some victims of burglary. Other victims, however, are terrified about giving evidence and would do anything rather than go into the witness box. We must therefore stop taking a broad-brush approach to sentencing, victims and criminals. That is one reason why I so strongly support our proposals: they recognise that defendants and criminals must not be treated in this broad-brush way.

I especially commend community sentences for people who have not committed the most serious offences. Tough community sentences can and do work. When faced with the prospect of another six months in custody or a tough two-year community sentence, many of my clients wanted the community sentence—

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I have not got as much professional experience as her; she practised as a criminal barrister for 16 years, whereas before the general election I was a pupil barrister in my local chambers in Hull. I practised as a criminal solicitor for some time prior to that, however, and I have not met or spoken to anyone from the profession in recent days who has said the policy in question is a good one. Indeed, I have spoken to Members who sit on the hon. Lady’s side of the House, including practising barristers, who have said that this policy is simply wrong.

I have a great deal of respect for the Lord Chancellor; I think he is a very honourable man, and I am sure that the explanation for his remarks last week is that he did not choose his words very well. Indeed, to be honest, when I heard, and listened back to, his comments, I understood the point he was trying to make. The reality, however, is that some sentences that are currently on the statute book are too low. In an earlier intervention, I made a point about convictions and sentences for the offence of causing death by careless driving while over the limit—[Interruption.] I have done the maths; the hon. Member for Broxtowe might be able to correct me if she thinks she is more experienced than me. The figure for that offence is nine months. How can that possibly be fair to victims? Also, the maximum sentence for the offence of dangerous driving per se is two years’ imprisonment, but that offence often causes paralysis; it leaves people in wheelchairs, their lives ruined, yet the starting point is 12 months.

There is no evidence that the proposed policy will encourage people to plead guilty even earlier.

No, I am sorry, but there is not sufficient time.

There is no evidence to support this proposal. I suspect that the Prime Minister will kick this bonkers idea into the long grass pretty soon. Drop it now.

Last week, the Justice Secretary showed us how out of touch he is with the women of this country, and this afternoon we have had a demonstration of how out of touch he is with communities on the issue of crime. In recent days, the Justice Secretary has said that he does not want to change sentences for serious crime, and he said that again this afternoon. He is playing word games with the public, however, because he knows perfectly well that under his proposals people could spend just one quarter of the sentence given to them by the judge in prison. The safety of our communities is too serious for us to play these word games.

No wonder the public lose trust in the system.

“many people feel that sentencing in Britain is dishonest and misleading.”

The Tories said that in their manifesto, and they promised to improve transparency; another broken promise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, they promised to redevelop the prison estate and increase capacity. Instead, they are cutting the prison building programme. The one manifesto promise the Justice Secretary has fulfilled is to

“stop talking tough and meting out ever longer prison sentences”

That promise was in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto, of course.

My hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—the latter was an excellent Home Office Minister in the previous Government—have spoken of their concerns about the way the issue of rape was treated last week. That revealed that the ministerial team does not know the facts and does not know the law.

Unfortunately, most of the 1,000 rapes that are committed every week in this country are committed by partners and ex-partners. Also, the law has changed since the Secretary of State was practising at the bar in the last century, and he should know what it now is. Consensual sex between an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old is unlawful, but it is not rape.

The Labour Government ended cross-examination by assailants, and they ended questioning on people’s sexual pasts. The way to win the confidence of women in this country is not to cut the sentence for people convicted of rape; rather, it is to keep the specialist police, maintain local authority support for sexual assault referral centres, and listen to the groups and lawyers working with victims. The Ministry of Justice needs a woman in the team, and the Prime Minister should find one PDQ.

Many Members have spoken about the legacy that was left for the current Government. Government Members should remember that Labour cut crime by 43%, and cut reoffending by 15%. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) pointed out, the Labour Government understood the role that prison plays, which is why we increased the number of places by 26,000.

Everyone wants to cut reoffending and tackle the underlying problems, and the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) made an excellent speech on the issues faced by women offenders. The points she made highlight why we followed the recommendations in the Corston report and the Bradley report on prisoners with mental health problems, and why we invested £170 million in literacy and numeracy skills, and set up new workshops in prison.

Early guilty pleas can speed up trials and reduce the pressure on victims, but the real reason why the Government are going ahead is to save money, as the Secretary of State made clear. The Government’s own estimate is that a discount of up to 50% would reduce the number of prison places by 3,500 and save £130 million. The proposal in the Green Paper appears not in the section on victims, but under the heading

“Efficient, effective use of the courts.”

That is the real motivation. Of course cutting the deficit matters, but it is not the only thing that matters, and it is not possible to put a price on justice.

What is so radically wrong with the Government’s proposal to introduce a 50% discount for early guilty pleas is that it undermines the justice of the sentence that is finally served. Many criminals who would have pleaded guilty early anyway will benefit. Can the Minister tell us how many thousands of prisoners fall into that category? The Ministry of Justice estimates in its impact assessment that the average discount will rise from 25% to 34%, and that is totally unjustified.

As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice, Ministers have produced no evidence to suggest that the proposal will affect the number of people pleading guilty early. Indeed, the Sentencing Council will say that the strength of prosecuting evidence is the crucial factor, and the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges feels that many offenders are

“irrational or dysfunctional and will not face up to the realities until the last possible moment.”

As the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) pointed out, short sentences are known to be ineffective—that is obviously why the Ministry of Justice wants to increase the number of people on them. Another problem with the proposal is that the reduction is formulaic, so those who have committed the worst offences get the biggest cuts in prison terms—that is simply not fair. This proposal will apply to terrorists and last week Lord Carlile said:

“The release of every prisoner convicted of a terrorist offence has a national security implication and the sooner they are released the greater the national security implication.”

The overwhelming problem is that the punishment will not fit the crime. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) pointed out that victims will feel let down and the public’s confidence will be shattered.

The hon. Lady speaks with her usual passion on this subject, but did she speak with this passion when the previous Government introduced a 33% discount for an early guilty plea?

The hon. Lady should have listened to the debate; we have gone through that argument already.

I want to move on to the important issue of the Secretary of State’s “rehabilitation revolution”. That is what he has promised, but the cuts programme he has agreed—23% over four years, with a loss of 10,000 prison and probation staff—will make it impossible. He says that he wants to increase the number of hours that prisoners work from 22 to 40, but his own impact assessment says that that will need more up-front capital and ongoing staff costs to supervise prisoners for longer. He has already cut £170 million from prisons, which means that prisoners will be locked up in their cells for longer. We are already seeing cuts to education and restorative justice work with offenders.

He says that he wants more community sentences, but effective community supervision is impossible with the huge cuts to the probation trusts. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, we need to reinvest in community supervision, but this year Nottingham’s probation trust faces a cut of 7%, and the trusts of Norfolk and Suffolk, Devon and Cornwall, and West Yorkshire face cuts of 7.2%, 7.8% and a staggering 9.8% respectively.

The strategy is just not credible; nor are the Ministers. The year began with the prisons Minister standing in front of a burning prison as the third riot of his tenure took place. Last week, he said that “a moment’s reflection” would make it clear that giving half off a sentence would help to protect the public. He has now had a week’s reflection and we see from the Order Paper that the Government are stubbornly sticking to their policy. So I urge all hon. Members to reject the amendment and vote for the Opposition motion.

I am grateful for the chance to have a few minutes to reply to the debate and to present a set of arguments to explain why the Opposition motion is a good example of how not to debate or approach public policy in this area. It was my answer to a question here last Tuesday from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that led to the debate last week and, as that has developed and as we have heard this afternoon, there is a growing appreciation and understanding that the simplicity of the Opposition motion cannot do justice to the complexity of the issues and factors we must reconcile. The motion is outside any proper context and is premature, prejudging proper consideration of our policies as a whole. It is also rather instructive that it has come forward after a prompt from media coverage and the right hon. Gentleman. I would have thought that our policy inheritance from the previous Government would have given today’s Opposition Front-Bench team pause for thought before they tabled the motion.

A real reason for regret is that the Opposition motion indicates that a window might be closing on a unique opportunity for Parliament to show collective leadership in a difficult, complex area that is wide open to misrepresentation. We might be missing an opportunity to engage in a responsible debate and support a process in which policy is agreed on the basis of the evidence for its enduring benefit, not designed to deliver maximum short-term appeal, with evidence arranged to suit. Such support requires an exercise of principle and restraint from all of us.

I must apologise to the right hon. Gentleman but in order to reply to those who have contributed to this debate, himself included, I will not be able to take interventions if I am to do justice to the speeches that have been made.

Last year, when the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) distinguished his leadership campaign, so successfully managed by the shadow Justice Secretary, by taking a sensible position on criminal justice, moving away from the populist approach of the previous 13 years, it was greeted with enormous relief by many Labour supporters with a deep and continuing interest in criminal justice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) reminded us, the right hon. Gentleman reiterated the position at his party conference speech immediately after his election as leader. So I hope sincerely that we can sustain a level of examination of these issues in this House that we can be proud of in the years to come and not just regret a unique period when we had a great chance of delivering a more effective criminal justice policy of some durability but bottled it. Happily, a number of speakers did actually make a constructive contribution this evening.

As I have explained, if the hon. Gentleman wants me to reply to his remarks, I am not going to be able to give way.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said that we did not know the facts, but I wish to use this occasion to correct one or two mistakes of the shadow Justice Secretary. First, sentences of imprisonment for public protection—IPPs—are not automatic for rape sentences. He was also not wholly accurate on the release conditions for all those 80,000 people released 18 days early; the process was automatic to a set of criteria and no individual risk assessment was carried out. The hon. Lady also referred to the cuts to the probation trusts, but they are Labour cuts; they are the plans that the probation trusts were putting in place and they were in place under the previous Administration with the establishment of the probation trusts in the first place.

The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) complimented the style of the Secretary of State and I am grateful for that. He also drew attention to public attitudes in this area. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who chairs the Justice Committee, made it clear that the aims of our policy were sensible, and I am grateful for that support. He raised perfectly proper questions about the detail of our proposals, and they will have to be properly addressed when our proposals are brought forward.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made a good contribution, accepting our sincerity, and I wish to compliment him on his. He agreed with the Lord Chancellor on wanting to see how this policy will be deployed in detail, but his contribution would have been more credible if he had been waiting for the policy to be considered in detail and not just supported the motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is, of course, wholly consistent in his position and I compliment him on that. I continue to be grateful to him for his attention to detail in this area and for putting us to a proper test of the evidence. He very properly raised issues about the effects of incarceration that must be addressed and we must consider the evidence from around the world. I have engaged with him on this issue and will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was just a little ungracious about our women offender policy. She was at the debate the other week, which was answered for me by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) while I was visiting Wakefield prison, and she was at the reception for the Corston independent funders’ coalition at which I made it clear that we were continuing the policy that she and other Ministers had begun. Indeed, we have been complimented and congratulated by lobby groups in that area and I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) in that regard, too.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) totally misrepresented the views of my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) made a powerful contribution with strong words about the consequences of the sentencing policy we inherited. I appreciate her authoritative and strong support for the Green Paper proposals.

When we return after the Whitsun recess, the Government will present our response to the consultation on our proposals in “Breaking the Cycle” and at the same time we will publish our proposed legislation on legal aid and sentencing. We need to remember what we are trying to achieve by reinforcing our proposals for effective punishment and rehabilitation through our proposed legislative changes. The comprehensive package delivers appropriate punishment, which can carry confidence, of offenders in prison and the community. It sits with the delivery of public protection today through imprisonment and in the community through curfews, tagging, oversight and reporting requirements and with the delivery of public protection tomorrow through breaking the cycle of crime for today’s offenders with effective rehabilitation and early intervention to help prevent people from becoming offenders in the first place, getting proper restoration for victims from offenders and supporting victims and witnesses through the justice process. An important element of that involves obtaining more and earlier guilty pleas.

The merits of an early guilty plea are substantial and bring a number of discrete benefits. The first is early relief for the victim as the ordeal of the crime and of reporting it will not be compounded by months of waiting to give evidence with all the attendant anxiety. Secondly, taking some of the pressure off victims and witnesses will enable us to bring more offenders to justice. Thirdly, the police can make savings in investigatory time and effort and the Crown Prosecution Service can save considerable process time. Fourthly, the offender will possibly make considered reparation to the victim, perhaps through a restorative justice process that can deliver a measure of real accountability to the victim as well as to society. Fifthly, there will be earlier identification and engagement with appropriate rehabilitation to address the underlying causes of offending behaviour. Sixthly, of course, the administration of justice is an expensive obligation for the taxpayer and the state and if offenders co-operate with that process from the earliest opportunity, the taxpayer is saved expense, which must be welcome in this financial climate.

What we do here is for the future, and I have not seen it better expressed than it was last week by a student, Felix Danczak, writing in Cambridge university’s Varsity newspaper:

“Debate drives society—it is only through engaging with issues that we progress, gain new understanding and recognise nuance. Vilifying Mr Clarke, without a prior critical engagement with the issues at stake, is to leave us at the mercy of a polity driven only by the fear of scandal, unwilling to make substantive changes lest their rolling heads be paraded above the fold. If we want change, if we want positive development in society, we too need to recognise the importance of complexity.”

We have a duty to that generation that we will abrogate if we do not rise to the challenge of the complexity of policy in this area. The motion does not do that and if the Opposition insist on pressing it to a Division, I must ask the House to resist it.

Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.

Question agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).


That this House deplores the previous Government’s failure to tackle the national scandal of reoffending and its mismanagement of the justice system; notes that discounts for guilty pleas have been an established principle of common law for decades, and that they can speed up justice and spare victims and witnesses the ordeal of waiting and preparing to give evidence at trial; and welcomes the Government’s intention to overhaul sentencing to deliver more effective punishment for offenders and increased reparation for victims and to reform offenders to cut crime.

Order. Would Members leaving the Chamber do so quickly and quietly, please, so that we can start the next debate? [Interruption.] Private conversations are good, but preferably outside the Chamber.