Mr Speaker, may I welcome you to the Chair? This is the first opportunity I have had formally to do so, other than in the ceremony of appointment.
We have already started work to overhaul our sentencing framework. We know that prolific offenders generally have multiple and complex needs linked to their offending behaviour, in particular relating to drugs, alcohol and mental health. We will be introducing new sentencing laws, including more robust and effective community penalties.
The Lord Chancellor speaks very well on many matters of sentencing, but one of the things that came up in the manifesto that I would be particularly interested in hearing him speak about is extending sentences for some of the worst offences. On page 18 of our manifesto, as he will remember—indeed, I am sure he wrote it—there is a call for extending child cruelty sentences as well. I would be very grateful if he tried to introduce Tony’s law, named after baby Tony Hudgell, who was so brutally assaulted by his birth parents before, thank God, he found love with his true parents, the Hudgell family.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his consistent campaigning on this issue. He will remember my own involvement in getting child cruelty law updated to cover psychiatric and psychological harm because, frankly, it was out of date. I would be happy to talk to him about it. It is important to remember that there is an interrelationship between this offence and very serious offences of violence that tragically are inflicted on children and for which, for example in section 18, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
The average rate of reoffending in Derbyshire is 27.1%, which is lower than the average for England and Wales, but my constituents in Derby North are still rightly concerned about career criminals. What plans does the Minister have to bring down reoffending further both in Derbyshire and in England and Wales?
I welcome my hon. Friend back. We have missed her for the last two and a half years; it is good to see her back in her place. I pay tribute to her for her community campaigning in Derby North. She is absolutely right to raise the issue of career criminals. Sadly, there is a cohort of people who are very hard to reach, which is why all options have to be open to sentencers, including custody. But it will be part of our plans, canvassed in a White Paper ahead of any sentencing legislation, to see what extra programmes and measures can be taken to deal with that particular cohort of persistent offender.
For far too many, prison is the worst place to tackle the issue of debt, substance abuse and mental health problems that led them to commit crimes in the first place. Figures that I uncovered show that nearly half of all women sent to prison were homeless—up 70% in just four years. Many thousands are stuck in a destructive cycle of short sentence after short sentence, which costs a fortune, does nothing to reduce reoffending and fails to keep the public safe. Is it not about time that the Government face the facts and, finally, properly invest in alternatives to prison for less serious offenders?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is precisely my policy. It is not just about being tough on crime, though public protection is important; it is about being smart on crime as well. Having had experience as a sentencer, the last thing we need to do, with respect to him, is to reduce sentencing options and prevent sentencers from imposing short sentences where appropriate. That has to be one of the tools in the box. Frankly, at the last election, he and his party advanced a mistaken policy.
Unlike the Conservative party, we care about what works. The Conservatives like to claim that they are not ideologues, but the Government’s own evidence shows that 30,000 fewer crimes would be committed each year if the Government properly invested in alternatives to prison. Does the Justice Secretary accept that his Government’s decision to chase headlines in the right-wing press, rather than acting on the evidence, will leave people right across our country facing higher levels of crime? Is it not time that he acted on his own Department’s evidence and put an end to ineffective super-short prison sentences?
It is a bit rich to be lectured about ideology and an ideological approach by the hon. Gentleman. After nearly 20 years in practice and now over 30 years’ experience of the criminal justice system, the approach that I and my team will be taking will be a multi-layered approach that will emphasise the importance of protecting the public and making our streets safer, while at the same time increasing the sentencing options on community orders to deal with the drivers of less serious crimes such as drug addiction, alcohol addiction, family relationships and accommodation. We understand it, we absolutely get the point and that is what we are going to be getting on with.
One of the areas of sentencing policy that has already been reviewed and consulted on is the whole question of death by dangerous driving, particularly when drugs are involved, such as in the tragic case of my constituent, Bryony Hollands. The previous Government committed to legislate on this issue to lengthen sentences in certain circumstances. This is not in the Queen’s Speech. Are this Government committed to legislate and, if so, when?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. I have met in this place families of victims of this appalling crime and worked with hon. Members across the House on the issue. I want to get on with it. The commitment remains absolutely crystal clear. I very much hope that we can have a vehicle to do that. I am going to be doing a sentencing Bill this year; that could be one vehicle. I want to get on with this as soon as possible. We will have the time and the support of the Government to change the law in the right direction.
At the moment, there exists a loophole in the law that allows prolific sexual offenders to groom 16 and 17-year-olds with impunity. The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Church of England, the Offside Trust and the all-party group on safeguarding in faith settings are all calling on the Government to close that loophole to protect children. Will the Minister please meet me to explain why the Government have not acted thus far?
Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her consistent campaigning on these issues; we have worked together on them over many years. I am interested in the overall issue of grooming because it affects not only children but adults with learning disabilities. The Law Commission is looking at this issue now, but we cannot wait. We need to get on with change. I certainly will meet her and talk through the issues with her at the earliest opportunity.
My Broxtowe constituents have raised the TV licence fee with me and asked whether my right hon. and learned Friend has plans to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and whether he has made any assessment of how that might impact the volume of cases brought before the magistrates.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to this House? He and I have known each other for a number of years and have campaigned together, and he will make an outstanding advocate for the people of Broxtowe. With regard to the issue of television licences, we believe that there is a case to examine decriminalisation. About one in 12 cases in the magistrates courts are taken up with television licence default. We want to consult on the matter, take evidence and see whether there is a better way forward.