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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

Committee (8th Day)

Relevant documents: 21st Report from the Constitution Committee, 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st and 22nd Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.

Clause 61 : Duty to give reasons for and to explain effect of sentence

Amendment 175

Moved by

175: Clause 61, page 44, line 40, at end insert—

“( ) The court when requesting a pre-sentence report must ask for a social history on the offender from the Probation Service.”

My Lords, in moving Amendment 175 I shall also speak to Amendment 176. I have been asked to do so by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who apologises that she cannot be present today. These amendments add new provisions to Clause 61 in respect of sentencing guidelines. I will endeavour to put across the points that the noble Baroness wished to make and to combine them with my own remarks.

Amendment 175 would place a duty on courts to ask for a social history of an offender from the probation service when it requests a pre-sentence report. I do not have a legal background, but this issue has been brought to my attention by colleagues who sit on the panel of the independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Stalking Law Reform, whose excellent report was published today. They say that such a provision would be welcome in ensuring that courts were made aware of the history of offending of a particular perpetrator. Sadly, many perpetrators of ongoing, unacceptable behaviour such as domestic violence and stalking are able to get away with it simply because a court examines only individual instances of their behaviour and does not take into account the cumulative effect that long-term patterns of behaviour can have on victims.

Similarly, many stalkers and rapists have multiple victims, which can sometimes go unnoticed if the pattern is not recognised. When we also consider that perpetrators of dangerous and obsessive offences such as stalking frequently have a highly manipulative personality and can persuade criminal justice professionals that they are simply misunderstood and deserve a second chance, it is clear that changes need to be introduced to counter this. All too often, that second chance allows the perpetrator to continue his harassment of victims, sometimes even resulting in those victims’ deaths.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and I were assisted in preparing for this debate by Napo, the probation officers’ union, which has highlighted key case studies in the recent past where women have been subjected to harassment and stalking over a sustained period of time. In those cases, court reports have concentrated on the immediate offence, thus ignoring evidence that would be vital in determining the risk of reoffending.

I draw the attention of your Lordships' House to a case from the East Midlands in which a 44 year-old male was charged with breaching restraining orders three times, all resulting in community sentences. For the index offence on this occasion, he received a 12-month suspended supervision order. The stalking behaviour had been going on for five years, and there had been sporadic periods of harassment. At one time, the victim was reporting breaches daily. He was later convicted for assaults on a new partner, who also suffered harassment for a period after the break-up. He also participated in a domestic violence course in the community, but that was discontinued because of further breaches of restraining orders.

The probation officer believes that cases such as this are looked on as low-level domestic violence, yet have the potential to escalate quickly to serious violence and even to the death of women and children. She reports that in her area there is an increase in the number of men being convicted for a breach of restraining orders, but she thinks that they are not being dealt with effectively. Cases are not dealt with consistently even within probation areas. The harassment in this case has being going on sporadically for 20 years, and has been very intense in the past six years.

I have been given a dozen similar examples; the same common theme emerges from them all. Professional staff believe that short prison sentences do not allow them to develop and complete offender behavioural work to an extent that makes an impact, and that appropriate sentences must be developed and applied. In some instances, patterns of psychologically harmful behaviour have not been sufficiently recorded, meaning that the offenders in question were not treated. This is partly an issue of resources, since courts are under increasing pressure to settle for a fast delivery report, which means that there is not enough time to investigate previous behaviour. It seems only common sense that a court, prior to sentence, should be required to educate itself as to the history not only of a particular case but of a particular offender. Many lives will be saved if this provision can be accepted, and I therefore urge the Government to accept this amendment.

Amendment 176 would require courts, when handing down a sentence, to consider the effect of it on dependants. I know that in tabling this amendment the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, had in mind particularly the high instance of women who are incarcerated for relatively short periods, and the devastating effect this can have on their families. As was well documented in the 2007 report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, Women in the Penal System, the demographic fingerprint of women who enter the penal system is staggeringly different from that of men in the same system. Women prisoners are far more likely to be primary carers of young children, so the effect on families of a mother entering prison is far harsher than the effect of a father being incarcerated. Latest statistics show that 66 per cent of women prisoners have dependent children.

The Howard League estimates that more than 17,000 children in England and Wales were separated from their mothers in 2010 due to their mothers’ incarceration. Roughly 6,000 of these children were under five years old, a quite staggering figure of 33 per cent of them. Even more far reaching is the likely effect on single-mother families if a mother is put into prison, leaving the children to enter care. The Howard League estimates that only 5 per cent of female prisoners’ children remain in the family home once their mother is imprisoned, which contrasts with 90 per cent of male prisoners’ children. It is often said that prison is not the best answer when handing down sentences for women. On a practical level, Ministry of Justice statistics show that 54 per cent of women jailed are reconvicted within 12 months, rising to 64 per cent if the sentence was for less than a year.

Equally, however, many organisations argue that we should be more lenient, particularly when considering the common reasons that lead to women entering into crime in the first place. These include relationship problems and coercion by others. The conditions within prison aggravate underlying problems afflicting many women prisoners: 51 per cent have severe mental illness; 47 per cent have a major depressive disorder; 50 per cent have been subject to domestic violence, and 33 per cent to sexual abuse. Against this background, is it surprising that no less than 37 per cent of women prisoners have attempted suicide? Mental health problems are still far more prevalent among women in prison than men, and self-harm is a significant problem.

The effects on their children are equally distressing. Separation as a result of a mother’s imprisonment punishes the children and will nearly always cause psychological, social and material damage. Wherever possible, alternative routes to rehabilitation should be favoured for women, particularly those with dependants. That is why it is so important that courts take into account the fact that women in these circumstances are indeed different from men. Courts should keep in mind, that is, that women tend to be charged with less serious offences and receive short custodial sentences, that one-third of them are single parents and that most of these women could undergo community sentences at one-tenth of the cost of prison, with much lower re-conviction rates.

It is for those reasons that I support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I urge the Government to respond to them and take on board the need for change that has been so graphically outlined by many people outside this Chamber.

My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment. The points that my noble friend Lord Wigley has made on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, are a fine illustration of why the stalking report that was published this morning is so important and its contents are so relevant to the points that have been discussed here already.

It is crucial that the backgrounds of serious and repeat offenders are seriously considered before decisions are made. Judging by the list that Napo has sent to my noble friend, there are indeed many instances of short sentences where not only has no treatment been given but there has been no effective outcome at all. One can imagine that there will be repeat offenders. On that point, I stress that in the Midlands in particular no fewer than five of these very short sentences were illustrated.

I turn to the second point, which is even more crucial: the effect on dependants. The numbers of children who have been affected in this way over generations must be into the millions. Let us think of the cycle of deprivation and the way in which their behaviour is no doubt going to reflect the less than desirable behaviour of their parents in the past.

Women prisoners tend to believe, I think with some justification, that they are given harsher and longer sentences than male prisoners. I remember visiting a women’s prison and being interviewed as a “victim”, as it were. This prison had been set up with a marvellous two-pronged system whereby you had to learn both the techniques of how an interviewing system worked in a broadcasting station and how to do the interviewing. For many of these women, who had no confidence at all in their own ability, to have to ask those kinds of questions was a big challenge. They said that they reckoned that they had tougher sentences. When you consider that many of them would no doubt have been sent with drugs in them, put there by manipulative people from outside the country as well as inside, we need to take what they were saying very seriously. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to this amendment.

I rarely disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, but I do on this occasion. I do not think that there is any evidence that women prisoners are dealt with more harshly than men. That is a point which should not have been made because it is irrelevant. In my experience as an advocate, quite the reverse is true.

On the amendments, I largely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, has said, but they would not add very much to the present practice. The probation service always gives a social history—whatever that may mean—of the offender, and it goes into great depth. It also considers the effect of sentencing on dependants. Both those points, which are relevant for debate, are irrelevant as far as the law is concerned.

We have heard a great deal about stalking today. Stalking is a very serious offence and we ought to consider the report, but this is not the occasion to do so.

It is essential that whatever the probation officer has to say in a case is taken seriously and in my view, it invariably is. However, that goes to show that offenders must be represented if that provision is to take effect. All too often, the offender is not represented; by and large, it is important that the points which are made in the amendments are taken into account. So I urge that, wherever possible, the defendant is represented.

I have some sympathy with Amendment 175. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I was taken back into the past. He said that probation reports go into great depth on the effects of sentencing on the offender. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, spoke about reports looking into the background of offenders. That used to be so, but in a serious case in which I was involved within the past 12 months, when a verdict by the jury of murder was reduced to manslaughter, I was shocked to discover that the probation service simply interviewed my client over a video link while he was in Belmarsh prison. He was given no notice; he was spoken to for about half an hour; and the ensuing report was simply a question of assessing the risk for the purposes of an indeterminate prison sentence.

It was put before the court, and the request was made for an adjournment for a probation report to follow as it used to, with relatives being interviewed and the court being given some idea of the person’s background and some concept of why he could have committed the offence. However, I am very concerned that at the moment the pressure on the probation service is such that it is forced to take these shorthand approaches of video links with a person you have never met before, carried out by someone much younger who makes no attempt to look into the background. In my view, it is a denial of justice in the individual case.

My Lords, I seldom disagree with my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. However, on this occasion I have heard accounts directly from individuals who have been the victims of stalking. One common thread appears throughout these accounts. Individual instances are taken into account but the severity and length of the offences that currently fall under “harassment” are not always fully taken into account. Even looking at the best case, what happens is that incidents may be looked at as a group or a collection.

Some of the victims of stalking have been victims of the same stalker for years. Like many other noble Lords, I have heard the woman who is conducting the campaign that has been set up on this subject. She is a former senior police officer who has said that repeatedly a joke is made when the woman first complains to the police. We need quite a large change in attitude. The joke that was referred to this morning on the radio was, “Don’t you feel flattered that somebody is attracted to you?”, when the victim went to the police.

On Amendment 176, spoken to in my noble friend’s absence by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, it is extremely important that we look at the circumstances of the offence. I cite repeated shoplifting as an example. In my experience, there are two different sorts of repeated shoplifting. There are people who go on shoplifting sprees, sometimes in groups, in order to resell goods for profit. There are other people who shoplift to get tins of baked beans for their children’s tea. The fact that it is a repeat offence should not necessarily mean that those children are deprived of their mother if there are other means of tackling the issue. I hope that the Minister will give a positive response to this set of circumstances in which women might be incarcerated and say that it is an example where, even though we may be dealing with different sums of money, funding projects that help give women self-esteem, and do not separate them from their families, is a more cost-effective and socially effective means of tackling many of the circumstances of these women.

My Lords, I find myself very much in sympathy with the sentiments that lie behind both the amendments. I agree with everything that was put so clearly and in such a balanced way by my noble friend Lord Wigley.

In relation to Amendment 175, it could be said that one is dealing with two sets of reports from two different agencies. In so far as anything deals with the criminal history of the defendant, even though it may not be the subject of a conviction, it belongs to the area of antecedents and to the agencies responsible for those. In other words, a bare statement of conviction on a certain date giving the detail of the conviction but no more would be very inadequate if it did not give the sentencing court—whether it be a magistrates’ court or a Crown Court—the background which is so essential for it to decide an appropriate sentence.

Both the agencies concerned—the probation service and those who prepare antecedent reports—are heavily overstrained. That, it seems to me, is the real problem with which one is dealing. These people dearly wish to devote much more time and effort to the preparation of a report but are simply unable to do that due to the exigencies which exist.

Everything that has been said in relation to dependants by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and those who support the amendments is corroborated by what I have seen over the years as a solicitor, barrister and judge. There are two stages when a court has to consider whether or not to impose a custodial sentence. First, it has to decide whether the gravity of the offence in all the circumstances of the case brings it over the bar, as it were, to the point where a custodial sentence is appropriate. Having decided that, it then looks at all the other circumstances of the case. Very material to that consideration will be the situation of dependants. It may well be argued, therefore, that it is not necessary to have the amendment, but I urge the Government to take a different view as it would help to concentrate the mind of the sentencer in that direction.

Any wise sentencer—magistrate or judge—knowing that young children may have to go into care or be dealt with in some other way, will have to look at the totality of the situation, having decided that it is an appropriate case for custodial sentence. In other words, the sentencer has to ask whether the totality of the situation is such that the community and the interests of justice are best served by a person going to prison or avoiding prison in some way or other. It is not a question of what the person deserves because that is a narrow, tunnel-vision approach to the whole matter; it is a question of what is proper and just for society and all concerned. I am sure that it is a precept for the wise sentencing court—magistrate or judge—to ask for a full report from the care authority regarding what exactly will happen to children in the event of a custodial sentence being imposed.

My Lords, both these amendments are concerned to ensure that the court knows all that it needs to know before sentencing. In my experience as a recorder, the court would be acting very negligently indeed if it were to sentence a woman, or even a man, without knowing the effect of that on the dependants. That is the fundamental point usually made in mitigation. It is very much part of the picture that any sentencing tribunal would have to take into account. If for some reason an advocate or the probation service was not giving sufficient information about this, the court would ensure—by adjourning if necessary—that that information was available. Therefore, although I accept the points made about the necessity to take all these facts into account, these amendments are designed to tell the courts what to do. I respectfully submit that the courts know what to do.

My Lords, I fully support the intentions of these amendments. I admired the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, but seek clarification from him. I have a question about feasibility and practicality. I am not sure whether it is intended that the requirements in these amendments should extend to magistrates’ courts as well as to the other courts. However, if one considers the circumstances in which the magistrates’ courts were operating last summer, following the riots, when they transacted an extraordinary volume of cases, worked under extreme pressure and sat until late at night, I wonder how realistic it is to lay upon those courts the requirements that these amendments would lay. I had misgivings about the magistrates’ courts working in that fashion but I recognise that what they did at that time was seen by the public as entirely appropriate in a situation of exceptional crisis. Perhaps what I am really saying is that there is no substitute for having enough courts that are sufficiently resourced and a probation service that is well enough resourced, and for the courts to do their work as far as possible screened from the pressures of the media and politics. However, that is a rather fanciful state of affairs to desire.

I therefore simply ask the noble Lord, whose purposes I thoroughly endorse, to explain, if he will, how he envisages these requirements actually working in practice when the courts are under severe pressure.

My Lords, I must apologise for not having been in my place when the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, was moving his amendment; however, as I have put my name to the amendment, I hope that with the leave of the House I might make just two observations.

First, it has been said that it is not appropriate to tell the courts what to do because they know what to do. That is a fine sentiment in some ways, and I pay due respect to the sincere professionals who make the courts system work. The issue is whether the court has enough information in front of it to make a proper decision in view of the circumstances and consequences of what it may decide. The amendments are therefore dealing with a rather different point.

I also want to make this observation: of course, when the court has before it someone who is about to be sentenced, I am sure that there is a punishment to be made; but if we are sensible and rational beings, and the courts are working well, it is also essential right from that moment to be thinking about the rehabilitation of the individual so that they can become a positive citizen. That is why the quality and depth of the probation service’s report is crucial; otherwise, we slip into a sort of factory system of justice whereby there is an automatic response to a case. One has to try all the time to look at the individual and at how the sentence can be tailored to enable that citizen not only to be punished but to start the process of rehabilitation and join society as a responsible citizen.

If we are concerned about future crime, there is nothing more absurd and wasteful than not to take fully into account the implications for the dependants, because we may otherwise find that the court, by not having paid sufficient attention to the needs of the dependants, has inadvertently contributed to the next generation of offenders in that family.

My Lords, we on the opposition Benches support both amendments and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and his cosignatories on bringing them forward. I have not the slightest doubt that any court presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, would not only know what to do but actually do it. However, that is not necessarily universally the case, and the Justice Select Committee in July 2008 raised concerns about the fact that pre-sentence reports were not requested frequently enough. It also raised doubts about the adequacy of those reports when they were presented; so there is clearly a problem in some courts some of the time, and it is sensible to make provision along the lines of both amendments.

An amendment precisely along the lines of the second amendment was moved in the Commons by Helen Goodman MP. It is surely essential for the courts to give due consideration to the effect of sentencing on dependants, not only from the point of view of those dependants but—given that we are necessarily talking about costs all the time—to avoid the costs that may arise from, for example, having to take children into care or the long-term damage that may be done to families, particularly but not exclusively in the context of mothers being sentenced to imprisonment.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, rightly referred to the fact that there is a high suicide rate among women prisoners. There is also an alarmingly high rate of self-harm. After all, one-third of women prisoners are single mothers; only 9 per cent of children with mothers who are serving custodial sentences are looked after by their father. That is not to say that there may not be other family members who take care of some children in those circumstances, but it is clearly a material factor.

It is of great concern that more than half of women prisoners suffer from severe mental illness, and half have suffered from domestic violence. They are clearly very damaged women. One might feel that children in that family are already vulnerable and exposed to risk. Notwithstanding the experience of my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, it is clear that women are not treated in exactly the same way in sentencing, as a higher proportion of first-time offenders among women are sent to prison than men and a higher proportion of women are sentenced for non-violent offences—both significant differences. There is a problem about sentencing of women, and we will be considering that under later amendments. Bearing in mind the higher proportion of those women who have dependent children, the amendment is extremely timely.

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, raised an issue about the practicality of the situation and cited the experience of last summer, with courts sentencing people to custodial sentences in the middle of the night. It may be that custodial sentences were required. The question arises whether it was necessary for those sentences to take immediate effect without proper inquiry into the background circumstances. I would argue that that was not necessary, whatever the ultimate sentence may have been.

My noble friend Lady Corston has reported extensively on the position of women prisoners. Her report will no doubt be touched on in conjunction with later amendments. The spirit of that report should surely inform the Government’s attitude to these two amendments, which we heartily commend.

My Lords, this has been an extremely useful debate and one that has not necessarily followed previous structures where the Minister sits there under fire from all parts of the House. It has been interesting to hear the various experiences, particularly of noble and learned Lords and their opinions on whether the amendments are necessary or add to present practice.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out when a court must or should request a report. Amendment 175 does not address those provisions, which relate to the duty to explain a sentence after it has been decided. A pre-sentence report is designed to inform the judge or magistrate before they decide on a sentence, while the clause relates to duties to explain the sentence that is being imposed.

Nevertheless, under the system now in place, a pre-sentence report to the court by the probation service sets out a recommendation for sentence based on the background and the risk posed by the offender. The report will set out any factors relevant to the offending. That will include a history of alcohol or drug dependency or any home life factors that might be relevant. That report is, in effect, what one would understand by the term “social history”. Of course, the court would also have in front of it a print-out of previous convictions and it would decide which of these were relevant to the case.

The law on the disclosure of previous convictions is a separate subject and contains safeguards to ensure that irrelevant convictions are not considered. The judge in a case will—indeed, must—consider relevant and recent convictions when sentencing. This is in Section 143(2) of the Criminal Justice Act.

On the points about stalking, as was mentioned, the report has come out only today and it would be wrong for me to give an instant response on it or on its relevance to this matter. However, having listened to the debate, I should like to look at the amendment again and perhaps, between now and Report, talk to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the other noble Lords in whose names it stands.

Amendment 176 would place a duty on sentencers to consider the effects of sentences on the offender’s dependants. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, was in her place a little earlier. I have pointed out on previous occasions that we in the Ministry of Justice still keep her report as the guideline on the treatment of women offenders. The budget, which I shall not go into again, is a constraint, but we are trying to take forward many of her recommendations. Although I understood what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said and I appreciated his helpful intervention, I am firmly convinced that there is a difference with women offenders and there should be a difference in our treatment of them.

The fact is that, in deciding on a sentence, the judge or magistrates are required to consider first and foremost the seriousness of the offence. They will also consider any personal mitigating factors relevant to the offender, which can include the impact of a sentence on dependants. The difference that the existence of dependants makes to the type or severity of a sentence, particularly where the offender is the primary carer, has been clarified over the years by decisions of the Court of Appeal. Indeed, the Court of Appeal has clearly established that if a court does not have sufficient information on the consequences of separating a parent from a child, it must ask for more information. In short, it is long established that the courts can, and in certain circumstances must, consider the potential impact of a sentence on dependants. If they did not do so where it was relevant, this could give rise to an appeal against the sentence.

In both these debates there has been a desire to put instructions into statute and it is a debate that has continued since I have been in this job. It is a question of how much the legislators want to instruct the judges what to do and how much the judges say, “Listen, we’re there. We listen to all the evidence and we get the reports. We are best placed to make the judgments”. There will always be that tension between Parliament and the judiciary, but it is a healthy tension. However, I think that in this case the amendment is not a necessary addition to statutory provisions and I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.

My Lords, looking at public expenditure, sending a woman to prison and putting her children into care is an extremely expensive option, but in many cases the resources are not available for the alternative treatment that I know speakers in this debate and other noble Lords regard as a preferable option. The problem is that those who have to deal with a particular incident or the result of a series of incidents often cannot use that judgment. It demands lateral thinking to transfer resources from one course of action to another.

I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. That was very much the thrust of the Corston report and of what the Government are trying to do in carrying through their justice reforms, particularly in the treatment of women offenders.

I am concerned about the instructions given to probation officers who carry out pre-sentence reports. Will my noble friend look into the matter before Report and find out in what circumstances it is acceptable for a probation officer to fashion a pre-sentence report based simply on a videolink and ticking boxes on a form on the other side? When is that permitted and what particular guidance is given to probation officers in those circumstances?

One of the reasons why I am always at a disadvantage when dealing with my noble friend is because he usually has some recent case in which he has personally participated that proves the case he is making. I have noted what he said and will check whether that is regular practice. As I said, the Appeal Court has made it very clear that if reports are not asked for or are deficient, that in itself could be grounds for an appeal.

Further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is it not the case—I will be grateful if I am wrong—that under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, there is a requirement on the court in all cases to have a probation report in writing, save when the court sees it entirely proper to relax that rule, but not when a person is under 18? There is one other exception that I cannot remember, but it is quite substantial. In other words, will the Minister look not just at the amendment but at the parent provision, as it were, in the 2003 Act?

Certainly, but the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, makes my point. There are responsibilities already in previous legislation that make these amendments unnecessary. As always, I will check. I am sure that his memory is accurate, but if not I will write a correcting letter. In the mean time, with the offer of some talks on the amendment, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, will withdraw it.

Will the Minister consider the possibility of a code of practice on how such reports are produced and give some guidance to the probation service so that this matter can be resolved without necessarily any recourse to legislation?

That is an interesting and helpful intervention from my noble friend, which I will take away and consider.

My Lords, the Minister said in his opening remarks that he was in an unusual situation in that he was responding to a debate that had not overtly attacked the Government or him. I am in a novel situation as well, having had the Minister’s response. I thank everyone who has taken part in this short debate. It has been very worth while. I pay tribute to the work undertaken by my noble friend Lady Howe in this whole area, but particularly in the context of today’s report on stalking. I am very grateful for her comments.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has doubts about whether the amendments add very much to the law. The pressure that we have had as the tablers of these amendments has come from professional probation workers, who are at the sharp end and feel that a change is necessary. Whether that change is correctly encapsulated in these amendments may be another question. It may be that further guidance can be given to meet some of these points, but an issue certainly arises, otherwise there would not have been the wealth of examples. I could have quoted a dozen or more most moving examples that need the attention of Parliament.

Today’s report on the reform of the law on stalking by the independent parliamentary inquiry contains five recommendations that are directly relevant to the points covered by these amendments. I was grateful to the Minister for saying that he will give further thought to the amendments in the context of the debate we had last night as well as in that of the report, which add up to a need to give attention to this.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, gave a very graphic example from direct personal experience. Quite clearly there needs to be some guidance to avoid some of the dangers he outlined in the context of videolinking. Whether that can be done by law or needs to be done in other ways, it is not a satisfactory situation and I can well understand how he feels about it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, referred to the severity of events not always being properly taken into full account. I can well understand that. The severity, the incidence and the whole background need to be taken into account before proper judgments can be made.

My noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan spoke from his immense experience as a judge and a barrister. He emphasised the need for previous history to be available in determining appropriate sentences. Quite clearly, the history is a guiding factor in determining what is or is not appropriate. On dependants, he emphasised the need for courts to consider the totality of the case and the implications that the sentence would have in that totality of circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, questioned whether the courts are neglecting their duties. I imagine that most courts strive in every way they can to undertake their duties and to meet the requirements but, as always, safety nets in law are necessary when there could be courts that fail to do so. I refer to the evidence that has been sent to us by those who are involved in detail on these questions. I am sure that the Minister will take these points on board.

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, asked me whether the intention is that the amendment should apply to magistrates’ courts. It was the intention that it should apply to both Crown Courts and magistrates' courts, but if there are problems here, by all means let us have a look at them. There might be problems with the workload on the courts and the nature of the courts. That might raise the question of which court is most appropriate for some of these matters. These are questions that no doubt the Minister will be willing to consider.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for being a supporter of these amendments. He referred to the need for rehabilitation and therefore for maximum information to be available to facilitate that purpose and minimise future crime. That must always be our objective.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for his support for these amendments from the Front Bench. He emphasised the degree of self-harm among women in prison. This must be very high in our minds as we address these questions.

I thank the Minister for his offer of discussions and further meetings to consider the implications of these amendments in the context of other developments. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, will be delighted to accept that offer, and on that basis I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 175 withdrawn.

Amendment 176 not moved.

Clause 61 agreed.

House resumed.