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Sentencing Council: Guidelines

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 20 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what sentencing guidelines are issued by the Sentencing Council to advise judges on the choice of the imposition of either consecutive or concurrent sentences on persons guilty of multiple offences.

My Lords, the Sentencing Council issued the Offences Taken into Consideration and Totality guidelines in June 2012. They state that a concurrent sentence would be appropriate where,

“offences arise out of the same incident or facts”,

and where,

“there is a series of offences of the same … kind”.

A consecutive sentence would be appropriate where,

“offences arise out of unrelated facts”,

or where the offence,

“qualifies for a statutory minimum sentence and concurrent sentences would improperly undermine that minimum”.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he not agree that perception is everything? The Sentencing Council admits that:

“Concurrent sentences are sometimes thought to mean that an offender is getting away with some offences”.

Why, indeed, should an offender convicted of, say, causing death by dangerous driving, driving while disqualified and driving while uninsured not serve separate consecutive sentences for each offence, so that justice can be seen to be done? Is the Minister aware that justice is not served when the system seems to operate like a supermarket: “Commit one crime and get another one free”?

My Lords, I appreciate that sometimes the way in which sentences are reported can cause that reaction—but the courts are required to impose a sentence that reflects all the offending behaviour in every case, for both single and multiple offences. With concurrent sentences, the guidelines make it clear that the courts should normally aggravate the primary sentence to reflect the additional offences. These guidelines are about ensuring that the courts apply those principles consistently.

My Lords, how frequently, if at all, has such guidance been given since the inception of the present rules? If so, in what circumstances has that arisen?

My Lords, the Sentencing Council is a product of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. I believe that that is a very good piece of legislation, because it places an obligation on courts, when sentencing for offences, to follow the guidelines of the Sentencing Council unless,

“it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so”.

What that does, I hope—this was the intention of the legislation—is to bring consistency into sentencing, which we hope, as I think our predecessors hoped, gives greater confidence in the criminal justice system.

My Lords, the Sentencing Council guideline affirmed what is known as the totality principle. It generally works well in securing a uniform approach to sentencing for multiple offences that balances the need for reflecting overall criminality with the need for sentences that are just and proportionate. But does the Minister agree that, as the noble Baroness’s Question illustrates, much more needs to be done to explain this to a public who are very sceptical?

Yes, I would agree. The totality principle requires that courts review the aggregate sentence against the totality of the offending behaviour and adjust it to ensure that it is a proportionate overall sentence. The noble Baroness who asked the Question made the point that the public, as they read these reports, are often dissatisfied with what they consider to be soft justice. I think that the more they understand the sentences, the more they will have confidence in them. Another reform by the previous Administration requires that judges more fully explain their judgments, and that is a welcome step in giving people greater confidence about why a particular sentence was given. I confess to a certain reluctance about televising the courts as I am worried that there could be the kind of slippery slope that we see in the American courts, but the changes that I have seen so far should give the public a better understanding of the system, and that can only be to the good.