Considered in Committee
Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair
Order. I should explain, as was explained yesterday, that although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair during Committee stage, in these exceptional circumstances, and in order to comply with social distancing requirements, I will remain in the Speaker’s Chair, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker, but of Chairman of the Committee.
Consolidation of sentencing legislation: amendment of law for old offences
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to pave the way for the consolidation of sentencing procedural law in the forthcoming sentencing code. Currently, when passing sentence, a sentencing judge must consider the sentencing law that was applicable at the time of the offence. Given the number of different pieces of sentencing legislation passed over the years, that is often a complicated exercise. When reviewing that area, the Law Commission discovered 1,300 pages of legislation governing sentencing in this country. When it conducted a review in 2012, it discovered that errors were made in sentencing in 36% of cases, we think as a consequence of the extraordinary complexity of having to work out which piece of sentencing law applied at the time of the offence. Therefore, given the concept behind the sentencing code and its essential precursor, the Bill will ensure that a single set of sentencing legislation is applicable at the time of sentence, to which sentencing judges may refer.
The Law Commission was asked to look at this issue in September 2014. After Herculean labours it reported back in late 2018, but as a consequence of various general elections and other constitutional disruption, only in 2020 do we finally enact this Bill. I put on record my thanks to the Law Commissioners for their work, and particularly Professor David Ormerod, QC, for the enormous amount of work he has done in preparing the sentencing code for which this Bill paves the way.
As I understand it there are no amendments to the Bill’s five clauses, but I will briefly speak to each clause—I will be extremely concise. There are two substantive clauses. Clause 1(3) contains a clean sweep provision that removes those historical layers of sentencing law legislation to which I referred, so that when the sentencing code is enacted, which will be soon, sentencing courts will no longer need to refer to the historical versions of sentencing law in place at the time of the offence, and can instead refer to the sentencing code that was in force at the time of sentence.
We are, of course, extremely mindful of the well-established common law right that no offender should be subject to a heavier penalty at the point of sentence than was in force at the time of the offence. That right is enshrined in article 7 of the European convention on human rights, but the common law right long predates that. Therefore, in recognition of that important principle, there are a series of exemptions to ensure that no offender will suffer a heavier penalty than would otherwise have been the case. Those are expressed in clause 1(4) and (5), and in a wider list of exemptions enumerated in schedule 1.
Clause 2, the second substantive clause, essentially makes a series of amendments and modifications to existing sentencing legislation. Those are enumerated in schedule 2, which is quite long, and they essentially correct minor errors, streamlining sentencing procedural law. For example, they change language to avoid inconsistency and update statutory references. Because any consolidation must operate on the current law, we need to make those changes to enable the consolidation to happen in a technically correct way. They are therefore all essentially technical amendments to ensure that legislation works in the way that is intended.
I stress that the provisions of neither clause 1 nor clause 2 make any substantive changes to sentencing law. They do not increase or reduce the penalties for any particular offence; they simply clarify the way that sentencing law is available to judges to use when they pass sentence. It is a procedural simplification. Nothing in the Bill changes the actual level of sentences that are available to the courts to pass down.
Clause 3 is a technical interpretation clause, clarifying what is meant by the various definitions and phrases used in the Bill. Clause 4 provides regulation-making powers in the Bill, if any changes need to be made that are necessary for the implementation of the sentencing code and for no other purpose. Any such statutory instruments would be made by the affirmative procedure.
Finally, clause 5 sets out the commencement provisions. Although, of course, the regulation-making powers will have effect upon gaining Royal Assent, the wider force of the Bill takes effect only when the sentencing code has been passed. The sentencing Bill enacting the code will be before the House relatively shortly.
I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer discussing clauses to which no amendments have been tabled, but I hope that gives the Committee a flavour of the clauses’ operative effect. This is a piece of extremely important legislation that I think the entire legal community will strongly welcome. It is a shame that it could not have been introduced any earlier, but we are doing so today, and it will greatly improve the operation of criminal sentencing in this jurisdiction. I urge the Committee to agree that clauses 1 to 5 stand part of the Bill.
This is the first piece of legislation that I am leading on as a shadow Justice Minister, and I am sure that it will be the first of many over the coming months, particularly given the Government’s legislative programme and the need for action in so many parts of our justice system. It is very clear to me, and to others, that the Government are facing a series of crises, from the impact of the coronavirus in prisons to the huge backlog of cases in the Courts and Tribunals Service, which had reached over 1 million, months before the pandemic. Much action is clearly needed.
I join the Minister in thanking the Law Commission and others who have been working so diligently on preparing this material. As has already been said, this is a largely technical and uncontroversial Bill and we have tabled no amendments. We agree that we cannot continue with complicated and complex guidance on sentencing, which is resulting in unfair sentences that are causing further problems, such as costs and delays in justice processes. Our current system is in no way perfect, by any measure. A near-dysfunctional mess of mixed legislation and amendments has, over time, led to wrong sentencing decisions resulting in lengthy and costly appeals, adding more and more stress to what is an overburdened justice and court system, as I referred to earlier. There must be a standard approach to provide clarity.
Offenders receiving unlawful sentences is unacceptable. That could mean offenders receiving more lenient sentences than the law says they should receive, or it could mean an excessive prison sentence outside of the guidelines for the particular offence committed. The Minister pointed out earlier that the survey showed that 36% of sentences were seen to be wrong. That is unacceptable in a just judicial system.
I am pleased that, however slowly, progress is being made. By making the justice system clearer, we can hopefully clear the backlog that has built up over a decade of cuts to courts and legal services, and I for one look forward to hearing the Minister’s strategy to do so. The removal of historic layers of legislation will provide greater clarity for professionals. No longer should complexity be a barrier to ensuring that justice has been truly served. Of course, it is not just about being more straightforward for those who work in justice; that also ensures public confidence in our justice system. Those who are facing the justice system need the clarity and understanding that often is not available due to the complications of amendments to sentencing over the years. It feels that we have a long way to go, but we have taken the first steps to restoring faith and efficiency in our justice system.
It is important that we work with stakeholders, and I am pleased that the sentencing code being considered in the other place has received widespread support, including from legal practitioners, judges and academics. Those stakeholders know at first hand the difference that such changes will make for the lives of other people. I hope that the Minister will welcome our working with those who have experience in justice matters in relation to future Bills. Consideration must also be given to the scenario of amendments being made to sentencing law in the future and ensuring that the principle of the sentencing code is followed properly. I will try not to talk too much about the code, and save that for when the Bill is before the House.
I have some questions for the Minister, which I hope he will be able to answer to provide clarity for me and colleagues. As we have finally got the Bill to this stage, will the Minister update the House on the progress of the Sentencing Bill, which follows this one? It had its First Reading on 5 March this year in the other place, but we are still waiting for a date for Second Reading. Will he confirm that the Bill is to be referred to a Joint Committee on Consolidation? When will its membership be agreed and when will it sit? Will he also confirm when the Sentencing Bill is likely to have its Second Reading in the House of Commons and the expected timeframe for it to be completed? A few minutes ago, he said that he expected that to be soon, but it has some way to go yet in the other place.
I ask that specifically because before the Sentencing Bill and therefore the code come into force, other legislation, including the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, which has its Second Reading in this House next week, cannot be enacted. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case? Does he agree that any further delay would be problematic and would not best serve justice in this country?
In conclusion, we on this side of the House fully support the Government’s intention in concluding the Law Commission’s work, and we will not oppose the contents of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s responses and working with him moving forward, ensuring that our legislation and regulations are fit for purpose and serve the best interests of the public.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) in his place on the Opposition Front Bench. I know that the Justice Committee, which I have the honour to Chair, will look forward to engaging with him and the Minister as we go forward on these issues. May I adopt a number of the questions that he has raised with the Minister, which are not partisan but important questions of procedure?
As the Minister rightly said, this is an important and technical Bill. It is warmly welcomed and, I think, universally supported among practitioners and, I hope, by the broader public too. It is therefore important that the substantial Bill makes progress as soon as possible. I join both Front Benchers in paying tribute to the work of the Law Commission. I might mention that again on Third Reading, as I know the Lord Chancellor will wish to do. I particularly want to mention the work of Professor David Ormerod, who was the criminal law commissioner for a period and recently retired. He has done exceptional work in this regard and has been almost the principal driver behind the measure and the code itself.
I particularly welcome the introduction of the “clean sweep” provisions in clause 1. That is novel, but it is much to be commended, and I hope that this will not be the only occasion on which it is used. Incorporation by reference, which is the style of legislative amendment we tend to have now in this country, can create inconsistencies and anomalies, and it is quite a bold measure to have a consolidation platform of this kind. I am glad to hear the Minister say that it is not intended that anything should undermine either the common law or article 7 rights that there shall not be retroactively greater punishment than would have been available at the time.
I particularly welcome the Minister’s reference to the need for linguistic clarity and consistency in sentencing legislation. That has been a real difficulty for those of us who have practised and sat in the criminal courts over the years. At the moment, about eight statutes have to be referred to, depending on the nature of the offence, and experienced professional judges can get this wrong as much as anyone else. I ask him for assurance that the Government as a whole will bear in mind the need for linguistic consistency in any further sentencing measures that may come forward. Many Bills may have sentencing provisions attached to them, and it is important that, having got consistency through clause 1, we do not lose that by a departure from that approach in future legislation, not all of which will necessarily come from the Ministry of Justice. I hope that the Government will take those points on board.
I think it will be generally welcomed by those who sat as recorders in the Crown courts, sometimes dealing with matters being sent up from the magistrates court on appeal, that the Bill will enable us to remove the current inconsistency of language between the law that must be applied in resentencing in the magistrates court as opposed to the Crown court. Although the effect is the same, and the rule on greater retrospectivity not being permitted remains the same, the language of the provisions relating to the Crown court and the magistrates court is different. That causes confusion when judges are sitting as recorders, or judges and recorders are sitting with magistrates on the Crown court dealing with an appeal from the magistrates court where they have to apply the magistrates court provisions. Anything that removes that anomaly is to be welcomed.
I think we all hope that the Bill is enacted as swiftly as possible. I note the observations of the noble Lord Judge, on behalf of the Joint Committee in the upper House, about the importance of the Bill and of it being a living instrument. Will the Minister reassure us that it is intended that all future Government legislation touching on criminal justice and sentencing matters will adhere to the principle behind the code?
I concur with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). This is an uncontroversial Bill that has support right across the House, and as such, I do not wish to detain the Committee for long. However, I want to return to a subject raised by my colleagues on Second Reading, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) raised the shocking statistic mentioned in the Library briefing that 36% of 262 cases sampled by the Law Commission involved unlawful sentences. This has potential serious repercussions for the administration of justice in our courts. One suggestion made by my hon. Friend was for the Government to publish a list of common mistakes made, to draw to the attention of the judiciary. The Minister said he would investigate that idea, so could he update us on his investigation or any work being done to draw up that idea?
I should state at the outset that, before coming to this place, I was a magistrate for 12 years and consequently sentenced a large number of offenders. For some 18 months, I was the magistrate member of the Sentencing Council. While there, I was party to briefings by the Law Commission on the proposed sentencing code that is indirectly the subject of today’s legislation.
The sentencing code is greatly to be welcomed, and thus so is this legislation. It must be right that sentencing law is as clear and straightforward as possible, in the interests of justice for all parties in a case, including, naturally, not only the offender being sentenced, but the victim of the crime, for whom clarity and certainty can be a comfort. It follows that it must be right to take the necessary steps towards achieving that aim by amending existing legislation to facilitate the enactment and operation of the proposed sentencing code. The clean sweep approach covered in clause 1 is a significant step that will help avoid errors and appeals resulting from historic or redundant aspects of legislation being incorrectly reflected in a sentencing exercise. I welcome the improvement that that will bring to initial sentencing decisions and am reassured that the concomitant safeguards against retroactivity will protect human rights.
Although the details of other clauses of this Bill may not seem to merit great discussion in and of themselves, they do form part of a significant and important process to improve a vital element of the criminal justice system. In the interests of brevity, I will reserve any other remarks for Third Reading. However, I ask the Minister to do all he can to ensure that the magistracy is properly trained once these provisions come into place, along with the sentencing code, to ensure that they are able to apply to all correctly and appropriately.
Let me start by also welcoming the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) to his place on the Opposition Front Bench. Like him, I am looking forward to many exchanges in the coming weeks and months as we debate the volume of legislation coming through and other matters connected to our courts system. He mentioned the issue of the case load before the courts. Of course, the outstanding case load before the Crown court prior to coronavirus was significantly lower than it has been in the past, particularly in the 2000s, but we want to get it down even further. Naturally, coronavirus is causing a number of challenges in the courts, but he will know that we are reintroducing jury trials. That commenced on 18 May and they are now operating in seven courts. We intend to expand that as quickly as we safely can; we hope that a number of courts that have been closed will reopen as soon as they are safely able to do so. He will also be aware that we are expediting the roll-out of the cloud video platform, which will allow many, many hearings to take place on the platform which otherwise, owing to social distancing, would not be possible. This probably is not the time to rehearse everything in detail, but let me reassure him that a huge amount of work is being undertaken by the Ministry of Justice and by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to make sure that our courts system functions in the way that we want and that we avoid the accumulation of large backlogs as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.
The hon. Gentleman asked particular questions on the timing of the Sentencing Bill enacting the sentencing code. As I said, we are hoping to bring that forward in this House as soon as we can. I regret to say that I cannot give him a precise time, as it is still subject to agreement by business managers, but we want to bring it forward as quickly as we can. We will also make sure that regardless of the sequencing between that Sentencing Bill and the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, they technically fit together. I was glad to hear him, in essence, welcoming the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, which we will be discussing shortly; I hope it is one of those topics where we can approach it across the House in a bi-partisan spirit of co-operation. Matters touching on national security and protecting the public from terrorism are topics where, in general, we are able to work together, and I very much hope that will apply to that Bill as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chairman of the Justice Committee, echoed my thanks to Professor David Ormerod, which I wholeheartedly endorse and repeat. I wish to give my hon. Friend the assurance he requested that the approach he laid out here in terms of clarity, consistency and consolidation is a principle that we would wish to apply in the future.
It is no good doing the consolidation exercise once and simply having a snapshot. We want it to be, as he put it, a living instrument that will be applied into the future so that the consistency and clarity that the Bill and the sentencing code will bring are not frozen in time but rolled forward and applied in the future too. I can therefore give him the assurance that he asked for.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) raised a question following up an intervention, which I recall, from her colleague the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on Second Reading, which happened in a Committee Room a few weeks ago. I think I said that publishing guidelines on common errors that might be avoided was a matter probably best handled by the Judicial College, or possibly the Judicial Office. I will follow up again with them to check in on progress in that area.
In a similar spirit, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), who is of course extremely experienced in this area, as he mentioned, drew attention to the importance of training. Again, once the sentencing code is enacted, the Ministry of Justice will work with the Judicial Office, the Judicial College and of course the Magistrates Leadership Executive to ensure that the training measures are in place so that the judiciary who are using the code are able to do so to best effect.
I thank Members who contributed to the debate for their very constructive and thoughtful comments. Again, I commend clauses 1 to 5 to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
In listening to the short but meaningful debate in Committee, I was struck by the number of contributions that dealt properly with the detail of this important measure. I speak with a high degree of personal experience, having expended many work hours as a practitioner and, indeed, as a part-time judge myself in trying to make sure that the relevant legal provision that applied to the particular sentencing exercise was complied with.
I thought to myself many times that the time I expended on making sure that the letter of the law was adhered to should have been time in which I could have been considering either the merits of the sentencing exercise or, indeed, the fate of the defendant whose sentence was about to be passed. That has to be the focus of the sentencing exercise: the justice of the case and the merits of the decision—an important, often life-changing decision—to be made by a judge or a magistrate about the sentence to be passed upon an individual defendant. Therefore, what we are doing in this House today is not a mere academic exercise; it affects the real lives of real people.
That is why for several years, as a Minister, as a Law Officer, as a Minister of State in the Department that I continue to serve in, and now as Secretary of State, I have pressed for this measure to be advanced before both Houses of Parliament, and I am particularly delighted to speak on Third Reading in its support. As we have heard, this measure paves the way for what will be the biggest consolidation in sentencing law ever undertaken in the history of the criminal law in England and Wales. What it will allow is the sentencing code, which is currently before the other place. It is that code that will bring together the procedural provisions on which the courts have to rely during sentencing. It will, for the first time, provide a coherent and unified structure. I firmly believe that it will assist greatly in reducing the risk of error, appeals on errors of law and, of course, delay in the sentencing process.
I know that judges in the Court of Appeal as well as practitioners the length and breadth of England and Wales will be relieved and delighted to know that this measure is making a swift passage. Having spent many hours delving through the pages of Archbold and Blackstone, the bibles of criminal practitioners, I can say that it was with a sinking heart each year that, when I had a new edition of those worthy tomes, I found that the sentencing chapter had got even longer and more complicated.
Now here is something that we, as parliamentarians, can do to make that job a more sensible one. The measure will also improve confidence that the public need to have in sentencing, because clearer law—accessible law—leads to greater understanding. One of the big issues about sentencing that has perplexed me for many years has been that gulf between what the practitioner and the lawyer might understand and how it is explained to the public. It is not good enough, which is why this measure is not only desirable, but essential.
Thanks have already been tendered to staff at the Law Commission and, indeed, to parliamentary counsel who have worked extremely hard on this complex area of law over the past five years. This is an exceptional achievement, Madam Deputy Speaker. I add my personal thanks to Professor David Ormerod, whose work on this and other measures has been of singular importance in improving the quality of our criminal law. Without their efforts I do not believe that we would have got here today.
This Bill lays the groundwork. It creates the foundations for what will be a consolidation process that will then allow the sentencing code to apply. It is, therefore, not just as the Secretary of State, but as a former practitioner and judge who has personal experience and, if you like, skin in the game that I rise with particular pleasure to commend this Bill to the House on Third Reading.
I very much welcomed the Minister’s comments in Committee and his attitude on how we can work together to create good law in this place as part of his and my brief. The same, of course, applies to the Lord Chancellor, but we will continue to do our best to hold the Government properly to account.
Everyone across the House can, I believe, welcome the progress of this Bill today. Its provisions have long been called for by the professions, and we all hope that the simplification brought in by this and the Sentencing Bill and code itself will put an end to the high proportion of wrong decisions made on sentencing. Likewise, we hope to see an end to the tremendous workload created in the Court of Appeal, dealing with the mistakes, and an end to the many cases where people are not being handed the sentences that they actually deserve.
I very much welcomed the fact that the Lord Chancellor focused on the defendant, because they are the people who are at the sharp end when it comes to sentencing. We should never ever lose sight of the fact that, when we are dealing with these matters, we are dealing with people’s lives.
This Bill coupled with the Sentencing Bill, which creates the actual sentencing code, should make that whole system more efficient and assist in dealing with the backlog of cases which have only been added to during the current pandemic. I recognise that the Government are struggling with the escalating backlog in courts and tribunals. As I said, over 1 million cases are awaiting process in courts and tribunals, and that was at the end of 2019, before we had the effects of coronavirus. As Ministers know, this has been caused by the huge court closure programme, the lack of interpreters, and other problems, but there is no doubt that today’s legislation will contribute to better and speedier justice and reduce congestion and backlog in the courts over the coming years. As I said, I look forward in the coming weeks to learning how Ministers will address the huge backlog and whether the Minister will review the court closure programme and shorter sitting hours of many courts.
Virtual courts are part of the answer and the Minister in Committee addressed that, but they do not work in all contexts. We have seen cases halted because the system did not work in a fair and just way. The Opposition believe that the adoption of virtual proceedings, which have been heavily used using during covid-19, should never have a detrimental effect on the people participating, including defendants. I would appreciate clarity from Ministers—perhaps not now, but on another occasion—about whether they are concerned about the discrepancy in sentencing between physical and virtual proceedings, whether today’s new legislation will help to rectify that, and whether they will address this issue. I ask that specifically because I believe that while the sentencing code is much needed and welcomed, we must consider other issues that have an impact on sentencing and the environment that the sentencing code will operate in. I hope that Ministers will be able to have a clear conversation with us on virtual justice and the impact on sentencing, as it is an issue that the Opposition most certainly will raise time and again.
In conclusion, we know that this Bill and the Sentencing Bill are designed to simplify sentencing and enable the Government and individual lawmakers to do their jobs even better. It would therefore be useful to understand the plans that the Government now have for more general law reform. I look forward to future indications from Ministers about how they plan to do just that—reform further—but today, we are pleased to support the Bill’s passage and take that much needed step to improve the justice process for all.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor on the Bill and on his speech. In that very succinct and elegant speech, he made the case for why it is a thoroughly good thing to have a lawyer as Lord Chancellor as well as anyone, I think, could ever make it. He is absolutely right and, at risk of referring to my interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, every one of us who has practised in the field of criminal law knows the minefield that has developed in sentencing over the years. That is true in many respects, both in the technicalities to be circumvented and because, for both the advocate and the sentencer—never mind the defendant and the victims —it is, without any doubt, most stressful in human and emotional terms as well. Anything that brings clarity and consistency to sentencing is of great public importance.
In that regard, I welcome the tribute that the Lord Chancellor paid to the work of the Law Commission. It has been referred to, but on Third Reading I say again that we on the Justice Committee have always greatly valued the engagement of the Law Commission and, in the criminal justice field in particular, the work of Professor Ormerod, who is fundamental to this reform. His work on the Law Commission has rendered very great and significant public service indeed, and it is right that we put that on record.
The reforms have been well debated, but they are extremely welcome. I hope that this will also remind us of the value of the Law Commission as an institution and of the value of the Sentencing Council, which, when I started to practise, did not exist in its current form. We have developed and made our system of sentencing law sophisticated but not always simple—perhaps we can now have both. In particular, it is essential that the Law Commission is supported and properly resourced by Government, and I know that it will be at the current time.
There have been periods in the past when there was some concern even about the Law Commission’s very modest budgets and the support given to the Sentencing Council and others being put under pressure. I am reassured that that is not the case now.
As a country and a society, we get extraordinarily good value for money from the Law Commission. It is an undervalued institution in our public life and perhaps insufficiently recognised, though not by those involved in this debate. Against that background, it is a matter of more general regret that there has been a marked slowness —not unique to any one Government or Parliament—in introducing in legislation the Law Commission’s many thoughtful and considered recommendations on a raft of law reform. Criminal law is but one aspect that it deals with. In recent years, the rate of implementation of Law Commission recommendations has declined. Since 2010, of the 52 concluded projects listed in the table with its latest report, only 16 have been implemented either in full or in part. A succession of the Law Commission’s chairs have raised that over the years.
Although it is always a battle to get parliamentary time, I hope that, having got this important piece of work on to the statute book, we can ensure that, given the level of expertise available to us right across the law through the Law Commission, we do it the courtesy and justice of taking its recommendations seriously because they are invariably intended to be of public benefit. The Law Commission, by its nature and the way it works, can give a sometimes more considered view of important measures than is ever possible in our political debate, which is an important but different part of the process. Putting the two together gives us the best possible means of law reform. I hope that will be borne in mind. It is a good example of where collaboration, in the way the Lord Chancellor suggested, can work.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance in the Committee proceedings that the Bill will be treated, in the words of Lord Judge, as a “living instrument”. It is important that any future revisions to sentencing policy are consistent with the code, otherwise all that good work is undone. I was glad to have that reassurance. The Bill is an important step forward and I am delighted to support it.
The Bill is a very welcome culmination of the Law Commission’s four-year-long project to clear up and consolidate sentencing legislation. It acts as a clean sweep that has the potential to make the window to our sentencing law much clearer not only for judges but for those going through the criminal justice system and those who wish to hold the justice system to account for its failures. It cannot be right that the Law Commission’s survey found that more than one third of sentences are handed down against the statutes of our Parliament. Passing the Bill, along with the upcoming Sentencing Bill, makes those errors in our justice system easier to stop and spot.
I remind Ministers, and Members hoping to become Ministers, of how we ended up here and why the Bill is necessary in the first place. On Second Reading in the other House, Lord Falconer drew attention to the fact that there had been substantial changes to sentencing in no less than 16 years since 1990. It is little wonder, with such regular reform, that our sentencing statutes had become so cluttered. As we saw earlier this year, new legislation on sentencing is of course necessary, but this clean sweep does not in itself stop future legislation rendering the window to our justice system opaque once again.
When the Sentencing Bill comes in, I urge Ministers not to lose track of the importance of this measure. In the other House, Lord Falconer outlined four principles: any changes should be made by changing the terms of the sentencing code; any changes due to come into force after Royal Assent should be put into schedule 22 of the Sentencing Bill; any new arrangements should maintain the principle of the clean sweep; and any commencement information should be included in this Bill. Those guidelines are sensible and easy to follow and they maintain the clarity that we wish to create. Will the Minister commit to following those guidelines? If not, will he inform the House of any other plans going forward?
I finish by paying tribute to the Law Commission for its hard work in getting the Bill to this stage today.
In the interests of full transparency, I repeat my declaration from Committee stage: I have been a magistrate, and therefore have sentenced a large number of offenders, and I have been a member of the Sentencing Council.
I warmly welcome the Bill and in particular the clean sweep that will facilitate the enactment and operation of the sentencing code, which in turn will make the process of sentencing more straightforward and coherent. It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. Hopefully, this Bill will lead to far less delay because there will be far fewer errors to correct, and that must be right for all participants in the criminal justice system.
It is my hope that this Bill and the sentencing code Bill that will follow will help progress towards wider changes in sentencing policy and practice in the months and years ahead. The place that I would wish to see as the starting point for every part of the criminal justice system is the perspective of the victim, and I rather suspect that we can all agree on that across the House. To that end, we should not forget that there are five purposes of sentencing—punishment, rehabilitation, reduction of crime, protection of the public and, importantly, reparation by offenders to the victims of crime. I believe there is scope for judges and magistrates to be more explicit about how their sentences address those five purposes, and not least how they will protect the public and have a positive impact for victims.
There also needs to be far greater clarity about how long offenders will actually spend in prison, and there is scope to alter the way that is announced in court at the moment of sentencing too. The public should always understand what has happened in court and the amount of time that will ultimately be served behind bars.
Of course, that is not to say that I believe in locking people up and throwing away the key—very far from it. I am a firm believer in rehabilitation, and I declare my former role as a non-executive director of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Excellent work is carried out both inside prisons and in the community in order to address the causes of offending and, crucially, to reduce the likelihood of further crimes being committed. Indeed, I believe there is scope for considerable innovation in sentencing disposals, not least through the effective use of technology.
All of this should, I believe, be carried out with a much greater sense of the impact on the victim of the offence committed. The passing of the appropriate sentence is therefore crucial. The need to decide on that sentence correctly, based on the right legislation and procedure, is a consequent fundamental requirement in this legislation to facilitate greater clarity and efficiency. Therefore, the Bill is a welcome step in that process and a far better service of justice.
I welcome this Bill, which has my support on its Third Reading today. The Bill makes important steps to simplify criminal sentencing guidelines and, crucially, it improves the clarity of sentencing law to my constituents and the public at large. Currently, the sentencing law is over 1,300 pages long and even the most experienced judges and lawyers often find it complex to understand. In practice, this often leads to sentencing taking longer, dragging out the process of justice. This is not just significant in terms of limiting the efficiency of our courts and delivering justice: we also must remember that the longer the justice process is protracted, the more difficult and painful it is for victims, their families and their communities.
On top of this, the complex nature of our sentencing law leads to more errors being made in sentencing and more unlawful sentences being imposed. This in turn leads to more sentence appeals, further increasing the anguish of victims who must relive the ordeal. This Bill will certainly go some way to building public confidence in our justice system, but we still have great strides we need to take to fully win the public’s trust on the issue of sentencing. And we must build on this Bill today by making sentencing more honest, clearer and tougher.
As I have said, the Bill will make sentencing law more understandable, but more broadly, we currently have a sentencing regime that all too often does not do what it says on the tin. In many cases, when prison sentences are handed down by the courts, the full length of the sentence will never be served. These sentences are not honest either to the victims or to the public, who demand justice. The moves that the Government have made on this so far are to be welcomed, particularly the end of automatic halfway release for the most serious offenders, like those found guilty of rape and manslaughter. However, many other prisoners convicted of less serious crimes are still being let out at the halfway point. This is the case for those serving sentences of less than a year, but nearly two thirds of these petty offenders go on to reoffend.
Such is the expectation now that prisoners will be let out early that some judges have reportedly resorted to factoring this in when sentencing, awarding longer sentences than would otherwise be the case just to ensure that criminals spend the appropriate amount of time in jail. While this Bill will bring more transparency, we will not have full transparency until we have an honest sentencing regime where two years in prison means two years in prison, four years in prison means four years in prison and so on and so forth. The early release of prisoners underpins a sense among a large part of the public that the current law does not stand fully behind victims and the law-abiding people of this country.
Madam Deputy Speaker, when we are talking about making justice quicker and sparing the anguish of victims from drawn-out proceedings, as we are today, a discussion about the lenient tendencies of some judges and the often opaque sentencing appeals process also cannot be avoided. In April, the Court of Appeal overturned the sentence of Kyreis Davies, one of the men convicted of the brutal murder of Tavis Spencer-Aitkens in Ipswich in 2018. This act of evil shook the foundations of our town. And it has been a tragedy that has been extremely difficult to move on from, not least for Tavis’s family, who have been through hell. This has only been made harder by the Court of Appeal’s decision to reduce Davies’s sentence from a minimum of 21 years to just 16 years on the basis of his age at the time of this crime. Tavis’s family were not able to participate in this appeal, and Davies is now set to be let out in his early 30s, when he took the life of a 17-year-old who had his whole life ahead of him and lay on the ground bleeding outside his father’s house.
The leniency being displayed by some judges through legal processes that are often confusing and inaccessible to victims is completely out of touch with what the vast majority of the public consider to be appropriate and constitute justice. While, of course, we must respect the independence of the judiciary, it is fundamentally the public confidence in the judiciary which is at stake here and as representatives of the public, we must consider the ways we can ensure that the sentencing decisions of our courts reflect the values of the people we all serve here.
I had correspondence with the Ministry of Justice about the Davies case, and I have been over it with Tavis’s family. While I understand that Ministers may not be able to pass comment on the specific case, the family and I are still confused about why the sentence was reduced. I would be very grateful if Ministers could re-examine what has taken place in this case and provide further information, to shed more light on the appeals process.
So, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do very much welcome this Bill. It is a step in the right direction, but for the public and for our constituents to have complete confidence in the sentencing regime, three things need to be ticked. First, it needs to be easy to understand; and that is why the Bill is to be welcomed. But also it needs to be honest—honest to the values of the people of our country. And I would also say, it needs to be tough, firm and fair. For those reasons, I welcome the Bill, but it is just the start of delivering on the promises that we stood on a manifesto to deliver.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I crave your indulgence for a few moments to wind up this Third Reading debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), who already, in the short time he has been in the House, is proving to be a very effective and powerful advocate for the town that he has the honour of representing. The matter that he raises will, I am sure, be examined by either me or one of my ministerial colleagues, consistent with the constraints we have with regard to individual cases.
I am grateful to all Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) rightly referred to the contribution made by Lord Falconer, one of my predecessors, in the Lords. She enjoined me to follow his guidelines, to use the word that she coined.
I would perhaps recharacterise it in this way: Lord Falconer’s helpful suggestions are ones that I very much bear in mind, and I like a sinner who repenteth. I will be cheeky for a moment and remind the House that while he, as a distinguished member of the Labour Government, was sitting in the Cabinet, I, as a practitioner and part-time judge, was actually having to deal with the slew of criminal justice legislation, to which the hon. Lady referred, year after year. It slowed down a bit, to defend my Government’s record, but she makes a very important point, which this Bill will of course help to deal with.
To be fair to the previous Labour Government, in the year 2000 they passed a consolidation Bill called the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act, which was designed to cure the problem that we are still grappling with now. It was an excellent piece of work, but, sadly, within two years it had been superseded by another criminal justice Act. This Bill is different because we have a code, and once it is brought in, the code will indeed endure, I hope for all time. The point the hon. Lady made about future legislation having to be consistent with it and with the schedule is a very important one, and I absolutely accept what she says.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, for supporting not just this Bill but the invaluable work of the Law Commission. He will be glad to know that, as the Minister responsible, I am extremely keen to work with it and its current chair, Lord Justice Green.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), who brings huge experience of the criminal justice system to this place. He is absolutely right to remind us that the experience of criminal justice is not something dry and for the pages of a law book; it is about the lives of real people—whether they are defendants, witnesses, jurors or victims—and that point must not be forgotten.
I am very grateful to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for the way in which he has approached this important measure and the support he has given to it, while qualifying his remarks about the need to hold us to account, which I of course accept with alacrity.
Madam Deputy Speaker, sometimes the little things matter. This Bill may not attract headlines in the newspapers and it may not be the stuff of high political drama, but believe you me, this is a Bill for the ages. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.