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Sentencing: Offender Attendance

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

It is right that those convicted of a crime face up to its consequences by being in court when they are sentenced. On 30 August, the Lord Chancellor announced his intention to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to enable judges to order an offender to attend court for sentencing, making it clear in legislation that reasonable force can be used to compel attendance and that refusal to comply with a judge’s order will cause the offender to face up to two years in custody.

In 2014, Colin Ash-Smith was convicted of murdering 16-year-old Claire Tiltman in my constituency of Dartford. His final insult to her was to refuse to attend the sentencing hearing, so I welcome the proposed changes to compel defendants to face up to the consequences of their actions. However, can the Minister confirm that there will be an opportunity for judges to hear representations from the prosecution, defence, and security staff before such action is taken?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope he will allow me this opportunity to express my sympathy to the friends and family of Claire Tiltman, who lived in his constituency and, in 1993, was tragically murdered. I was glad to see her murderer brought to justice after so many years. Colin Ash-Smith, like Lucy Letby, was cowardly for not attending the sentencing hearing to face up to his appalling crime. Each case is different, so it is important that the court and the judge have discretion in how to make an attendance order, and in reaching that decision—although we are working through the details—we would expect the courts to consider the full circumstances of each individual case, including any representations made by the prosecution or the defence in that context.

If we want offenders to attend their sentencing, it does rather help if the court is open. Harrow Crown court was closed two and a half weeks ago because of the discovery of crumbling concrete—RAAC—with no indication as yet of any timescale for it to be reopened. Its closure will inevitably exacerbate the backlog of criminal cases in the London area and prevent victims of crime from seeing justice. Could the Minister provide quickly an update on the progress at getting Harrow Crown court modernised, fully repaired and open again?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, particularly for the dexterity with which he got Harrow Crown court in. He is right to highlight that case. I understand that remedial work is under way and that cases listed there have been transferred to other London courts to ensure they still continue to be heard. I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), that the indicative timescale to complete the works is six to nine months.

I welcome the shadow Minister, Kevin Brennan. It will be quieter on the Back Benches but no doubt he will make up for it on the Front Bench.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I suspect the Minister might anticipate what I am going to ask him because I am beginning to think the Department should be renamed the Department for Justice Delayed. Labour proposed that we change the law on attending sentencing back in 2022, and just last month the Leader of the Opposition said that we were prepared to amend the relevant legislation if there was no action, so why is it taking so long for the Government to intervene on behalf of victims and their families?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and may I take the opportunity to welcome him to his place? I suspect there will occasionally be to-and-fros across this Chamber, but I hope there will also be opportunities, where we are in agreement, to work constructively together. We have been clear on our intention to bring forward appropriate legislation to reinforce the existing powers the judiciary has in this respect, but it is important that we get this right and that it builds in that degree of judicial discretion, because there may be some circumstances where victims would not wish to see the offender in court for sentencing because it would be deeply distressing or deeply disruptive. So it is important that we get this right. We are determined to do that, but we will work through the detail to make sure it is robust and effective.