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Magistrates: Sentencing Powers

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Lord Faulks on 7 July (HL Deb, cols 2120–2), whether consideration of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers has concluded; and if so, what conclusions have been reached.

My Lords, we are committed to keeping the magistracy at the centre of our justice system as we transform our courts and tribunals. We are still considering the case for increasing magistrates’ courts’ sentencing powers as one way to achieve this.

My Lords, it is four months since I asked my Question about the sentencing powers of magistrates. At that time, I was encouraged by the Answer from my noble friend Lord Faulks. Does my noble and learned friend feel that the time is coming when we should think more about this? I was very heartened by the Justice Select Committee’s recommendation that such an increase should occur. The Magistrates’ Association would welcome this move. It would like more cases to be resolved locally and more speedily, at the same time saving millions of pounds, which at this time would be very helpful. As a magistrate of long standing, I know that all cases are dealt with sentencing anyone to prison for a short time. Magistrates today are highly trained. Does my noble and learned friend feel that the time has come to accept the Select Committee’s recommendation?

I am obliged to my noble friend. We recognise that magistrates deal with more than 90% of criminal cases in the justice system. The proposed increase in sentencing powers was introduced by the Labour Government in 2003. They contemplated it for about seven years. We have not quite caught up with them yet, but we have had the recent report from the Justice Select Committee and we will consider its recommendations carefully. One of those recommendations noted that the Sentencing Council’s new allocation guidelines, which came in in March 2016, should be given an opportunity to bed in before the matter is finally reviewed, and we will do that.

The former Minister Shailesh Vara, before being sentenced to life on the Back Benches, told the Justice Select Committee that the Government were considering piloting increased sentencing powers in some areas. Can the Minister confirm the Government are not going to adopt this proposal, given the inevitable sense of injustice which would follow from the imposition by different courts of substantially different sentences for similar offences? Would he also comment on the wisdom of the Magistrates’ Association receiving funding from Sodexo, MTCnovo and Working Links, which are all engaged in the Prison Service or running community rehabilitation companies, to generate income for the association’s education and research network, as was revealed in Private Eye last December?

I am not in a position to comment on “revelations” in Private Eye and do not intend to do so. So far as the modelling of any increase in sentencing powers is concerned, that is presently under review, and we will come to a decision on it in due course.

The noble and learned Lord talked in his first Answer this afternoon about the importance of rehabilitation. Short sentences are, without doubt, hopeless for that purpose. Should not the emphasis be on developing better and more intensive non-custodial sentences and on training magistrates, including the Magistrates’ Association, in the value of such sentences?

Clearly, magistrates have the training and skill to consider a wide variety of sentencing powers and to impose a wide variety of sentences. We have no hesitation in acknowledging that. Whether they should or should not be custodial sentences, at the end of the day, must be a matter of judgment in each individual case.

Will my noble and learned friend take this opportunity to show the Government’s support for the entire cohort of the judiciary, whether it be the Supreme Court, the Divisional Court or the magistracy? Can he also confirm that, were magistrates to be given additional powers, it is overwhelmingly likely that those sentencing powers would be subject to a right of appeal, as of right, to the Crown Court?

My Lords, we have a judiciary of the highest calibre. We have a free press, which is not always of the highest calibre. Sensationalist and ill-informed attacks can undermine public confidence in the judiciary, but our public can have every confidence in our judiciary, a confidence which I believe must be shared by the Executive.

My Lords, would the Minister return to the second question asked by his noble friend Lord Faulks, which I believe he did not answer?

I apologise for having overlooked the second part of the question, having been distracted by the first part. I acknowledge that the second part of the question is in point. The question of an automatic right of appeal if sentencing powers are increased clearly has to be an important consideration.

My Lords, would the Minister care to agree with me that the answer to the problem of the ratio of prison staff to prisons is related not only to the number of prisons but to the number of prisoners? Therefore, there ought to be a return to at least the original number of prison staff. It is ridiculous to expect prison staff to cope with large numbers of people in a smaller number of prisons without government help.

Although I would always be anxious to concur with the noble Baroness where I can, I would point out that prison numbers have been determined more recently by reference to benchmarking, which has been the subject of review to reflect the nature and condition of the prison estate.

My Lords, the question of non-custodial sentences is very timely. Does the Minister agree that to achieve that objective, there would have to be considerable investment in the probation service? I hope that when these matters are being considered, the probation service will be central to the Government’s thinking.

I am obliged to the noble Lord. The Government are conscious that prison alone is not the answer to anything, that rehabilitation is critical and that the probation service remains central to that progress being made.