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Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

Sentencing must match the severity of the crime, but there is persuasive evidence that short sentences do not work in helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, which is why we are exploring options that would see them used much less frequently.

A deeply concerning incident took place in my constituency at the weekend involving an assault using a noxious substance. May I ask the Secretary of State for a clear commitment not only that the sale and possession of acid will be targeted, but that he will ensure that those guilty of these despicable and evil crimes receive significant prison terms?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a very serious incident. Such attacks are truly dreadful and have life-changing consequences, and anyone committing them must feel the full force of the law. That is why the Offensive Weapons Bill, which is currently being considered in the Lords, will change the law to stop the sale of acid to under-18s and to make it an offence to possess a corrosive substance in a public place. It is for the independent courts to determine sentences handed down in individual cases, but it is already the case that the use of a weapon, including acid, in any offence is treated as an aggravating factor meriting an increased sentence.

Statistics show that 36% of rough sleepers in London have previously been in prison—the figure is up three percentage points on the year before—which is deeply concerning. Short sentences do nothing but exacerbate the issue and do not reduce reoffending. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now time to introduce a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. If someone is given a short sentence, it can mean that they lose their home, which would put them in a more difficult position, and then on their release they would be at much greater risk of rough sleeping. We are looking at our options, and I welcome her support. We are running pilots at Pentonville, Bristol and Leeds to see what we can do to address the problem of rough sleeping.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s much more realistic and nuanced approach to sentencing and the use of imprisonment. Does he agree that it is essential that we have space in our prisons for those whose crimes are so serious that only custody is appropriate, but that we do not overcrowd prisons with those who have mental or medical difficulties, or literacy or social problems, or those who might be better dealt with through rigorous community sentences?

I completely agree with the Chair of the Justice Committee. There are serious crimes for which a strong custodial sentence is exactly the right answer, but there are also cases for which short sentences, in particular, are ineffective for rehabilitation and do not serve society well. Prison should be used when appropriate, and we should look to develop alternatives to prison wherever possible.

I am heartened by the Secretary of State’s answers thus far. Last September the prisons Minister, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), said that

“the evidence on what could be done to reduce reoffending by not overusing short prison sentences inappropriately is a good lesson from Scotland from which we wish to learn.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 41.]

At Holyrood, however, the Scottish Conservatives have long campaigned against the presumption against short sentences, claiming it to be a soft-touch approach. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Conservatives are out of touch in wanting to pursue an old-fashioned and entirely ineffective approach?

I will focus on the approach that I want to take in England and Wales. If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime. That is the approach that I want to take in England and Wales.

In reality, sentences and the prison population have gone up in recent years. I maintain that there are circumstances in which significant prison sentences are right as a means of punishment and a demonstration of society’s abhorrence at particular behaviours, but we also have to bear it in mind that some people who go to prison end up in a cycle of reoffending, with little achieved to the benefit of society or those individuals.