Committee (7th Day) (Continued)
Clause 96: Restriction on multiple cautions
187: Clause 96, page 84, leave out line 18
Member’s explanatory statement
This is consequential on Lord Paddick’s objection to Clause 97 standing part of the Bill.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 187 in my name I will speak to the other amendments in this group. I ask the Committee to forgive the repetition.
I understand the Government’s desire to simplify out-of-court disposals and take the pressure off courts but, as I have said in several previous groups, research has shown that moving to the system suggested by the Bill, as piloted by some police forces, is likely to cost more, do nothing to reduce offending and have little or no impact on victim satisfaction.
I have also suggested that the complexity of having to impose conditions in every case when a police caution is given, whether a diversionary or community caution, is likely to have the unintended consequences of increasing the number of cases dealt with by no further action being taken and the number of cases sent to court—anything to avoid the complicated process of setting, arranging and monitoring compliance with the conditions that must be set whenever anyone is given a police caution. Research already shows a reduction in the number of out-of-court disposals in recent years, and these changes are likely to result in further reductions.
Clause 97 abolishes all other forms of out-of-court disposal. I will give some illustrations of what this means in practice. A young lawyer or medic who, completely out of character, has too much to drink, gets drunk and ends up making a nuisance of himself is arrested and, once sober, is given a simple caution. The salutary effect on such an individual’s future behaviour is dramatic, the impact on his career prospects negligible and the amount of time taken by the police to deal with the case minimal. If the impact of his being stopped and spoken to by a police officer has an immediate sobering effect, he might even be given a fixed penalty notice for disorder and sent on his way. Neither of these out-of-court disposals would be available under the Bill as drafted.
If someone drops litter, is seen by a police officer and refuses to put it in the bin, at the moment, that police officer can issue a fixed penalty notice for disorder. Under the Bill, the only course for the officer would be either not to take any action at all, undermining both the law and the authority of the police, or to arrest the person and take them to a police station so that they can be cautioned with conditions attached. I am at a bit of a loss as to what conditions might be attached to a caution for littering, but perhaps the Minister can enlighten the Committee.
Altogether, there are currently 27 minor offences that can be dealt with by a police officer issuing a fixed penalty notice on the spot, from cycling in a park where cycling is prohibited to possession of khat or cannabis. In all these cases, the only way to proceed, if this Bill passes unamended, would be to make an arrest, so that a community or diversionary caution with conditions attached could be administered.
This is a recipe for an increase in anti-social behaviour that goes unchallenged, because police officers faced with the bureaucracy of arrest and a community or diversionary caution with conditions attached will look the other way. What is unclear—the Committee needs to know this, and if the Minister cannot answer from the Dispatch Box, I ask him to write to me—is what happens to cannabis and khat warnings where people who have cannabis or khat found on them are seized by a police officer and a warning is given to them on the street. I would argue that that is a type of out-of-court disposal. Is this also to be outlawed by the Bill? If it is, it will have serious consequences for police resources.
What is proposed by this clause, with community and diversionary cautions being the only out-of-court disposals allowed, will result in fewer people having any action taken against them for anti-social behaviour and significant police resources being used to deal with minor offences. That is why Clause 97, which abolishes other forms of out-of-court disposals, such as fixed penalties for disorder, should not stand part of the Bill and the simple police caution should be retained. I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is to retain simple cautions. The examples he gave illustrate the point I made earlier: that this is a very complex area, with a lot of history of government trying to manage out-of-court disposals in different ways. He gave the example of 27 minor offences which can be dealt with by fixed penalty notices and asked what happens with cannabis and khat warnings. I would be interested to hear the answer.
The noble Lord asked—I think rhetorically—what else a police officer can do other than give a conditional caution. The answer is that they can do nothing. They can give the person they are dealing with a talking to; in my experience, police officers are perfectly capable of doing that. Nevertheless, as I said in an earlier group, this is a very complex area. The Government have tried a number of different out-of-court disposal regimes in recent years; I am not aware that any approach was particularly better than previous ones. Indeed, the noble Lord gave examples of the not obvious success of the pilot schemes for this regime.
Nevertheless, I think that out-of-court disposals are appropriate. They need to be handled in a proportionate way and with the right amount of training for the police officers dealing with them. Clearly, an appropriate level of intervention would, one would hope, be for the benefit of the offenders, given that it is very likely that a large proportion of the offenders will be drug and alcohol users. Having said that, I will be interested to hear why the Minister thinks a simple caution is not appropriate to retain on the statute book.
My Lords, it is fair to say that this group of amendments goes to the heart of why reform to out of court disposals was needed and the aims of the new cautions framework. The background is that the public consultation on out of court disposals showed that more than half of respondents did not believe that they deterred offending. As such, it was felt that there should be a framework with more meaningful and proportionate consequences and a move away from “warnings” and “simple cautions” to a system with, on the one hand, repercussions for the offender but, on the other, an opportunity to reduce reoffending and address often complex needs.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has indicated his intention to oppose Clause 97 standing part of the Bill. Removing that clause would allow existing cautions to remain in use. That would undermine the entire reform and change that we are trying to bring about and would continue the current inconsistent approach that we have across police forces. We do not want to stick with the status quo; we want to improve it.
As I understand it, Amendments 187 and 188 are consequential to the removal of Clause 97. Amendment 189 seeks to retain the option to use the simple caution as well as the new diversionary and community cautions. It also means that, if any existing cautions were retained, the giving of these disposals to offenders would then be taken into account in any repeat offending. Clause 96 deals with the provisions of restrictions on multiple use of cautions, so I will not expand further on that point at this stage.
Following the joint government and police review of out of court disposals between 2013 and 2014, it was established that the existing disposals framework needed reform. The National Police Chiefs’ Council developed its own two-tier out of court disposal strategy in 2017, which removed the need for the simple caution, penalty notice for disorder and cannabis and khat warnings. I will come back to the specific point the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about. Since then, one-third of forces have moved to the two-tier framework, using conditional cautions along with the non-statutory community resolution. We believe that attaching conditions to the caution means that the recipient must engage in some way with the outcome as well as accepting responsibility. That is a more proactive and robust approach than the simple caution, which requires no further engagement by the offender and is often nothing more than a warning.
Removal of the simple caution does not mean that there is no provision for offenders where conditions requiring higher levels of engagement are considered unsuitable. As I said in response to an earlier group, we want to ensure a wide range of conditions is available, including those that require a low level of engagement on the part of the offender; indeed, it goes down at the bottom end to an expectation not to reoffend, so that such conditions can be selected where appropriate. The critical point is that there should be flexibility in the conditions that may be set in terms of the level of engagement that is required from the offender, so that the authorised person has discretion in this regard when choosing the conditions.
On the specific point of cannabis and khat warnings, which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, also echoed, the community resolution already replaces cannabis and khat warnings. This is NPCC policy. The community resolution will be retained by the police as the only non-statutory option. Police are well practised in using the community resolution for this type of drug possession, and it does not require a formal admission of guilt either.
The final point I make is that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, implied—I think; I may have got this wrong—that removing the simple caution meant that a low-level offence could be dealt with only by means of a diversionary or community caution. Fixed penalty notices do not fall under the reform to out of court disposals and will still be available for use where relevant. The example of littering given by the noble Lord may be dealt with by those means or indeed by community resolution, which is an alternative and non-statutory disposal that police forces will retain. I hope that answers his question on the khat point and also his point on littering.
Does the Minister not agree that good law is about a combination of rules and discretion? I quite understand that he is here to advocate his new scheme and approach, which the Government have considered and think is the way forward, but why not have a little residual discretion for some of the examples that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, gave? The Minister said that a simple caution is really a bare warning but, occasionally, is not a bare warning better than nothing at all in terms of a police officer, in reality—sometimes underresourced, in difficult times—doing his job in the community?
Why do we have to be so rigid that we make a simple caution—which of course is not ideal and does not have the diversions and other things suggested— impossible to give? In circumstance where there is a student who is annoyingly drunk but has not really harmed anybody—as in the example given—why not allow a bare warning rather than no warning and no action at all?
Without turning this afternoon into a jurisprudential seminar, I certainly agree with the thrust of the point made by the noble Baroness that good law is often a combination of rules and discretion. At the level of generality, I would agree. However, it is not right to say that this is rigid; the conditions that can be applied are extremely flexible.
There are really two parts to the answer. First, within the new cautions regime, there is a great deal of flexibility as to the conditions that can be set out. If the noble Baroness looks at Clause 80 for diversionary cautions—which is mirrored in Clause 89 for community cautions—subsection (4) sets out the restrictive conditions and goes down to the one I mentioned in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, which is
“not to engage in specified conduct”.
That is, essentially, the lowest form of engagement when no other suitable conditions exist. That really creates a condition where the offender is expected not to commit any further offences. That is a very low level of engagement, and when that is suitable will be a matter for the code of practice.
The second part of the answer is to repeat the point I made earlier that other forms of out of court disposal are still available—I mentioned fixed penalty notices and community resolution—so, with respect, I do not agree that we are putting in place a rigid regime. The conditions are flexible and there are some disposals that are outside the cautions structure, even now.
I do not think I did so before, but I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Can the Minister clarify something? I think he said something along the lines that the lowest level of condition is that the offender should not engage in similar activity again. So, if somebody is arrested and cautioned and the police say to them “Don’t do it again”, is that a condition attached to a caution?
As I said a moment ago, this relates to Clause 80(4) and Clause 89(4), if the noble Lord looks at the last condition in each of those subsections. The code of practice, as I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, will make further provision for the circumstances in which that would be appropriate. Importantly, and I think differently from the simple caution, the police would still need to monitor conduct to ensure that someone had not reoffended, but that would be less onerous. This is a good example of where the new structure that we are putting in place preserves the best of the old regime but still has it on a more structured basis, focused on preventing reoffending as well as on the rehabilitation of the offender.
Forgive me, but I sense an element of unworldliness about this. If it is appropriate in a given case for there to be just words spoken and a warning, and it would be proportionate, do we really need the constable in question to go through the process of the recording and the monitoring?
I say no more on that but, if the Committee will indulge me, I would like to mention that Mr Gareth Dowling, the doorkeeper, is retiring today after some years of service and I hope that the Committee, if not the whole House, will join me in congratulating him and wishing him all the best for the future.
May I first deal with the caution points? I do not want to run those two topics together. On cautions, there is a fundamental point here. The simple caution is really what it says on the tin: a simple caution. In circumstances where the officer decides that it is appropriate to give a community caution with the lowest level—the one that we are talking about now—importantly, to get there, the officer or the authorised person still has to go through the process of speaking to the victim, thinking about what other options are available and looking at what other conditions are available. That process is valuable in all cases. That is one of the strengths of the new regime. I accept that that requires more consideration, but you end up with a system which is more robust and suitable and which results in a more proportionate response. Quite separately, I join the noble Baroness in what she said about Mr Dowling.
I thank noble Lords who have participated in this short debate and am grateful for the qualified support from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.
If I heard the Minister right, he referred to public consultation and the proportion of respondents who said that they did not believe that out-of-court disposals reduced offending. Is he really saying that the Government are now legislating on the basis of public opinion rather than on the basis of evidence? There is no evidence that the two-tier system that has been piloted by a third of forces is any more effective, as I have quoted at length and repeatedly—which the Minister ignores. There is no evidence that this will be a better system for reducing offending. With the greatest of respect, just because the Government assert that it will be does not mean that it is.
I am struggling here. If we take the example of somebody who is arrested for being drunk and disorderly and who the police want to caution, they now have to attach conditions. Presumably, the lowest level of condition will be, “You should desist from behaving like this in the future.” Then the Minister says, “But of course the police will have to put measures in place to monitor the accused’s future behaviour.” I am completely at a loss as to what sort of monitoring the Minister has in mind in such circumstances. The more the Committee examines these proposals—perhaps I should say the lack of them, bearing in mind that we will not see whatever is contained in the code of practice until well beyond the Bill receiving Royal Assent—the more the whole thing begins to unravel.
Clearly, I will apologise to the Minister and to the Committee if I have misunderstood the legislation in terms of withdrawing the police’s ability to give fixed penalty notices for disorder. I hope that the Minister will do the same if it turns out that I am right and he is wrong. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 187 withdrawn.
Amendment 188 not moved.
Clause 96 agreed.
Clause 97: Abolition of other cautions and out-of-court disposals
Amendment 189 not moved.
Clause 97 agreed.
Clause 98 agreed.
Schedule 10: Cautions: consequential amendments
189ZA: Schedule 10, page 231, line 15, leave out sub-paragraphs (2) and (3) and insert—
“(2) In paragraph 1(1)—(a) in the opening words, for “—” substitute “at the time the caution is given.”, and(b) omit paragraphs (a) and (b).””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the spending period for cautions.
Forgive me for the delay, my Lords—so many amendments, so little time, as it were.
I am grateful to Transform Justice for its briefing on this issue and for its assistance in drafting this amendment. Currently, simple cautions with no conditions attached are considered “spent” within the meaning of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 as soon as they have been given. This means that they do not have to be disclosed to potential employers. The Government propose to abolish simple cautions, so those who would previously have received a simple caution, which do not have to be disclosed, could potentially receive a diversionary caution, which, like conditional cautions currently, have to be disclosed for three months after the caution is given. Given the Government’s commitment to reform rehabilitation periods elsewhere in the Bill, we suggest that the rehabilitation period for diversionary cautions should be removed. In Part 11, Clause 164 already sets out various changes to the rehabilitation periods for different sentences. Removing the diversionary caution rehabilitation period should be added to the list of those changes.
The Government argue that a three-month spending period is required for a diversionary caution to support protection of the public. There is strong evidence that employment is one of the most, if not the most, important factors in enabling people to cease offending behaviour and to move on to crime-free lives as productive members of society. A three-month rehabilitation period is short enough to have little impact on public protection, but its existence will require people in employment or seeking employment to declare the caution and risk losing their job or be refused employment. It will also act as a barrier to those seeking education and volunteering opportunities. Research has found that employers discriminate against people with criminal records and that most do not differentiate between a caution and a conviction. Introducing a spending period for the diversionary caution will therefore hamper people’s efforts to gain employment while doing little for public protection. Diversionary cautions should follow the spending regime for the existing simple caution and end at the point at which the caution is given. I beg to move Amendment 189ZA.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord’s amendment. If I may, I will elasticate the rules of order slightly by referring to some other issues relating to the spending of cautions and of convictions.
In 2013 and 2014, an ad hoc committee of Members of this House and of the other place reported, sponsored by the National Children’s Bureau and the Michael Sieff Foundation, on the youth courts. I was part of that group, as was the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who was very valuable member, and as was a certain Back-Bencher called Robert Buckland, who later became Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. To be fair to him, despite having gone to the other side of good behaviour by becoming a member of the Cabinet, he always remained personally committed to what we had found. Our second recommendation was this:
“Children who have committed non-serious and non-violent offences, who have stopped offending, should have their criminal record expunged when they turn 18.”
I believe that that is a very important principle for which there is supporting evidence around the world. I am disappointed that the Bill is a touch pusillanimous in not picking up that recommendation—and I am grateful to say to the Minister that a number of our recommendations have been picked up.
If the noble Lord were to speak to Charlie Taylor, who held a very important position in the Ministry of Justice at that time, as chairman of the Youth Justice Board, and who is of course now Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, he would find that he is also very supportive of that recommendation, with his huge experience of dealing with young people, first as a teacher and then in the criminal justice sphere.
The evidence that I refer to comes in part from the United States. Some of its states have a graduation system for young offenders and, when they reach the age of majority, their youth offending record is expunged —unless the offences that they have committed have been quite or very serious, in which case a graduation period is built in for further time for good behaviour to be demonstrated. They then graduate, and it is seen as a high-school graduation. We need something very similar here.
A number of noble Lords in the House, like me, have been Members of the other place, and we probably all have experience of young people coming to us in their 20s and saying, “I could not get a job as a school teacher because I was cautioned for possessing cannabis when I was 17 years old.” It does not seem right to me, or, I suggest, to any reasonable person, that people should be lumbered with that sort of disadvantage when they have not merely gone straight but have actually built an important and useful life in society.
The other thing that I, as a chair of a mental health charity, will say in that context is that the most valuable people in our charity are people with lived experience of the issues that they are dealing with, whether it is drink, drugs, gambling or whatever. But those people should have the opportunity to go up the management scale to fulfil their potential.
Of course, we have all read and heard about the great work that Timpson does in employing people who come out of prison. For people to be able to graduate out of their youthful offending is an imperative, in my view, and I very much regret that we have waited seven years since the report that I referred to was produced. I urge the Minister—I do not expect him to reply immediately—to go away and come back with some reflections so that we could table an amendment on Report that would make the law change in this very important detail.
My Lords, I am very interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has just said. Although, again, I am not strictly following the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I very strongly support it and ask the Government to think again.
I happen to have had some limited personal experience of young people who had offended between the ages of 12 and 18 and who were acting for youth groups, mentoring other young people to prevent them from offending, because they had learned. I have met half a dozen of them. All were black and doing valuable work in their 20s, but were having the most appalling difficulty in finding a decent job that would be commensurate with their undoubted abilities. I will tell you the sort of case that happens. A child of 14 won a prize at school and took it home to show his family. His elder brother threw it away and said, “Don’t be so stupid. Why don’t you behave like us? That’s an utter waste of time.” He then went on to offend, and, aged 19 or 20, he told me that he had learned that this did not pay and that he had to lead a proper life. He was doing the most wonderful job, teaching other young black people, under the age of 18, how not to offend. It is crucial that what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has just said is picked up by the Government and taken forward.
My Lords, I have to agree with the three Members of the Committee who have just spoken. I will deal with the two proposals in turn, first that relating to children and their convictions being spent when they turn 18. That is absolutely compelling as an argument. I have just one thing to add: there is a huge differential in the experiences of different children in our communities. For example, there are looked-after children—the state not being the best parent—who will be prosecuted and will attract convictions, before their majority, for bad behaviour that simply does not get prosecuted when a child behaves in that way in the family home. This could be common assault or criminal damage. It is common practice for looked-after children to be in the criminal justice system in circumstances where their peers elsewhere would not. To not to get a second chance on turning 18 is a terrible indictment on our society.
I encourage the Minister to take the expert advice from the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, with all his experience of penal reform, and to do something about this. Things are compounded still by there being no right to be forgotten when it comes to the internet. The law has to push back even harder to try to rehabilitate people, particularly children, in the light of so much of our lives and our histories being on the internet.
I shall respond briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. A non-court disposal administered initially by a police officer should be immediately spent, as a matter of good practice but also as a matter of principle. If someone has given up the opportunity to have the matter dealt with in court, that should happen in many cases. However, there should be a benefit, and that should be that the disposal is immediately spent. It is an incentive to engage with it, but it is also right in principle. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was a wonderful thing, but we are a long way from its ethos and principles. It has been undermined by an exemption order that has grown, in my experience, every year and it has been undermined by the growth and rise of the internet. This Committee really needs to listen to the noble Lords, Lord Carlile and Lord Paddick, in their proposals, and push back very hard in the opposite direction.
My Lords, I will make a very brief point in support of what has just been said by the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Baroness. There are a number of professions where you have to establish that you are a fit and proper person. I act as a legal assessor to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and I am aware of the registration process: you have to assert that you are a fit and proper person. I can see that a caution of the kind that we have been discussing might stand in the way of a registration being effective, and that would be a great tragedy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for tabling his amendment. As we have seen through this debate, it has inspired many contributions on a wide range of points about whether and when a caution should be spent: after three months or immediately when the caution is given.
I remember sitting on the Michael Sieff Foundation report, and our discussions about whether all youths should effectively have their criminal records expunged unless there were particularly serious matters in there. I also remember debating that point very well, because I was sceptical about it at the time. The argument that I found most convincing was from the lady who was an academic helping us. It was based on the inadequacy of the record-keeping system for having any sort of differentiated approach for expunging a criminal record. It is really much better and more reliable to expunge the lot unless there are extreme reasons not to. That way gave young people the best chance of getting a good job and starting their career.
All noble Lords who spoke in this debate made interesting points. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti made one particular point about the record-keeping of the internet. This is a huge issue; the internet does not forget. Of course, employers make their own checks through the internet, whether or not they have been given permission to. In my experience, young people are conscious of this and spend a certain amount of time editing their internet history to make sure they get any job they are offered. That is a flippant point. Nevertheless, this was an interesting debate and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s reason for why a caution should not be spent at the time it is given, rather than after three months or whatever period it was. I too had the briefing from Transform Justice, which made a good case, so I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, first, I will pick up one point from the last group to make it very clear: if I have made any errors, I am happy to correct them. As far as I am aware, there is no doctrine of ministerial infallibility; I say that with all due respect to my colleagues. Because the Cabinet table is still terra incognita to me, I hope I am on the right side of good behaviour even speaking from this seat.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that we are not introducing any changes to the current regime for rehabilitating offenders who receive a caution. The proposed diversionary caution replicates the current system for the conditional caution, with the same spending period. I also point out that the lower-tier community caution being introduced has no spending period, and therefore mirrors the current adult simple caution. In effect, we are maintaining the position that pertains with a spending period for the lower-tier and higher-tier cautions. We think that is a sensible position to take.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was, to use her phrase, a wonderful thing. It is an important piece of legislation and the principle underpinning it is important. It seeks to strike a balance between protecting the public and rehabilitating offenders, and it does that by requiring that in most cases a criminal record must be disclosed for a period of time but—this is the important “but”—after that period, the offender no longer needs to disclose it for most types of employment. I hear the point made by my noble friend Lord Hailsham that cautions sometimes have to be disclosed, but it depends for what purposes and when. There is an important spending period.
The real question at the heart of this debate is whether diversionary and community cautions should have the same spending periods. It is at that point that I respectfully diverge from the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, because, if a diversionary caution were to be treated as spent at the time a caution is given, it would suggest that there is nothing in favour of public protection that requires the disclosure of that caution, and the offending it relates to, for even a limited time—up to three months—after it has been given. That position is simply not tenable, once we recall what the diversionary caution is all about. Let us remember that the diversionary caution requires the authorised person to be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence of offending to charge the offender, and the offender themselves must both admit to that offending and consent to the giving of the caution. Public protection therefore continues to be engaged after it is given as, unlike a community caution, criminal proceedings may be instituted if the offender does not comply with the conditions.
Over and above that, again unlike the community caution, the diversionary caution can be given for indictable offences, admittedly in exceptional circumstances and with permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions. That again highlights the importance of placing a time-limited spending period on cautions that relate to more serious offences. Removing, therefore, the spending period for diversionary cautions blurs the important distinction between the two sorts of caution.
For the out-of-court disposal regime to succeed, offenders must take the offer of diversion from prosecution seriously. One should remember that it is called the diversionary caution because it is a diversion from the court process and prosecution. Equally importantly, victims and the public must have confidence in its use. I have already mentioned that a review back in 2013-14 showed that over half of respondents did not believe that out-of-court disposals in their current form deterred offending.
The spending period has another upside. It creates an incentive for the offender to meet the conditions of the caution earlier than the three-month period, given that the caution is spent as soon as the conditions are satisfied. That is important. If one gets on with it and meets the conditions earlier than three months, the spending period ends there. There is an incentive, therefore, to get on with it because one’s spending period will be shorter.
The amendment also proposes to remove the same rehabilitation period that applies to youth conditional cautions and provides that such cautions are spent immediately when given for most purposes. Essentially for the same reasons that I have given in relation to the adult diversionary caution, we consider that the position is not tenable. A youth conditional caution is distinct from a simple youth caution and should be disclosed until the conditions have been met or three months have passed, whichever is sooner.
However, I draw the Committee’s attention to Clause 164, regarding the proposed reduction to rehabilitation periods for those receiving custodial sentences or other disposals on conviction. Rehabilitation periods are not set arbitrarily. We give serious thought to them and keep them under review to ensure that they are fair, and that the balance I mentioned earlier continues to be met.
Although I am now straying from the amendment because our debate ranged more widely, perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and my noble friend Lord Hailsham. I hear their points about cautions. We seek to maintain a proper balance here. I hope that it is fair for me to say that the points raised go beyond the scope of the amendment, but I have heard them. I will reflect on and discuss them and, if noble Lords who have made those points think that it would be helpful, that might well include discussions with them. For the reasons that I have set out, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, for talking beyond the amendment, in that the Bill’s provisions apply to adults rather than children. He made extremely important points, supported by noble Lords around the House. We support what he was talking about.
The Minister rightly said that a community caution has no spending period, whereas a diversionary caution has a three-month period. He said that that was no change from the existing position. However, there is nothing to stop the police giving someone a diversionary caution in circumstances where, in the past, a simple caution with no spending period would have been given. We have heard many cases, often questionably appropriate, of serious offences being dealt with by the police by means of a simple caution with no spending period attached to it.
The Minister tried to bolster his argument by saying, “The accused must admit the offence and agree to the caution.” That is exactly the same with a simple caution: the police cannot give someone a simple caution unless they admit the offence and agree to the caution.
There is a real danger here that people who currently get a simple caution, which there is no need for them to disclose to, for example, an employer, will have to disclose it in future, with all the negative consequences that that might entail. At this stage, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 189ZA withdrawn.
Schedule 10 agreed.
Clause 99: Regulations under Part 6
Amendments 189A to 189D not moved.
Clause 99 agreed.
Clause 100: Interpretation of Part 6
Amendment 190 not moved.
Clause 100 agreed.
Clause 101: Minimum sentences for particular offences
191: Clause 101, page 86, line 14, leave out from “committed” to “the court” on line 15 and insert—
“(i) by a person aged 16 or 17; or(ii) by a person aged 18 or over before the day on which section 101 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 came into force,”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that no children are affected by the changes to mandatory minimum sentences in Clause 101.
My Lords, I shall speak to amendments of various kinds in this group, all related to youth justice. I am grateful to the secretariat of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which my noble friend Lord Dubs and I are members. We have discussed the Bill at great length, interviewed people with expertise on each clause and, as noble Lords are aware, prepared relevant reports. It has been a heavy load on our secretariat and I am grateful for their dedicated work. I am also grateful to the Youth Justice Board, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Youth Justice Legal Centre and other children’s organisations for their contributions.
Amendments 191 to 194 in Clause 101 would ensure that no children were affected by the changes to mandatory minimum sentences in Clause 101, based on paragraphs 17 to 27 of the JCHR report. Clause 101 will allow a court to diverge from imposing a minimum custodial sentence for certain crimes, including crimes involving weapons committed by those aged 16 or 17, only where there were exceptional circumstances. This increase in the limitation on judicial discretion conflicts with the need for sentencing decisions to be individualised and for the welfare of the child to be a primary consideration. Custody for children, as has been stated in many cases, must remain a measure of last resort. Witnesses told the JCHR that limiting judicial discretion was inherently incompatible with the best-interests principle, the legal duty that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in any action by a state body, including a court. These principles reflect international standards and are a fundamental protection for the rights of the child.
This set of amendments would amend Clause 101 so that no children would be affected by its provisions. We have heard about the difficult circumstances of many children who interact with the criminal justice system, many of whom have complex needs that should be appropriately considered in sentences. The Bill limits the ability for such consideration by limiting judicial discretion at a time when there is a growing awareness of child criminal exploitation.
The amendment to leave out Clause 103 is based on paragraphs 76 to 82 in parts 7 and 8 of the JCHR report. Clause 103 would make it possible for judges to impose whole-life orders on offenders aged 18 to 20 in exceptionally serious circumstances. Sentences giving offenders no possibility of rehabilitation, and no prospect of release if that rehabilitation was achieved, would breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. While it has concluded that whole-life orders for offenders aged 21 and over do not violate Article 3 of the ECHR, the JCHR is concerned about the implication of extending these sentences to offenders aged 18 to 20.
The courts and the Justice Committee have accepted that turning 18 is not a cliff edge. Young offenders aged between 18 and 20 are still maturing and have significant potential to change. Extending to this age group a sentence that makes the prospect of these offenders ever being released unlikely comes perilously close to the Article 3 threshold. It also runs counter to positive recent recognition of the need to treat young adult offenders as a category distinct from old offenders. This amendment would ensure that the minimum age for imposing a whole-life sentence or order does not drop below 21.
Amendments 198 to 201 to Clause 104, which would remove any tariff starting points above the current 12 years, are based on paragraphs 28 to 39 of the JCHR report. Clause 104 introduces a range of starting points for tariffs for children given DHMP sentences. When setting the tariff period, the court must first allocate a starting point and then consider any aggravating or mitigating factors—plus the effect of the defendant’s previous convictions, any guilty plea and whether the offence was committed on bail.
Currently, the starting point for the courts when setting the tariff is 12 years for children of all ages. The Bill proposes a change to this starting point, depending on the age of the child. The changes would more closely align the starting points for older children with the equivalent offences for adults, while reducing them for a small number of younger children.
Life sentences for children have been criticised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, whose interpretation of the UNCRC, while not legally binding, is authoritative. Increasing the length of time that children must spend in custody before they can be considered for release can be seen only as making DHMP even less aligned to the rights in the UNCRC, which the UK ratified in 1992. Scotland and Wales are looking at how the convention might be incorporated into law. I am not sure where they are with this—perhaps the Minister will know more.
The courts already have discretion to consider the different developmental stages of children and reflect this in the tariffs that they hand down for DHMP. Mandating the courts in legislation to treat older and younger children differently focuses too much on age and not enough on maturity or circumstances. It brings tariffs for older children so close to those faced by adults that the distinction between a child and an adult risks being lost. However, the JCHR accepts the imposition of shorter tariff periods for the youngest offenders as a step towards the recommendations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. These amendments remove any tariff starting points above the current 12 years but retain the imposition of shorter tariff periods for the youngest offenders.
Amendments 202 and 203 to Clause 105 return to permitting the possibility of a reduction of the tariff at the halfway stage and beyond for those who have committed relevant crimes as children, based on paragraphs 40 to 45 of the JCHR report. Individuals detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure may apply for their tariffs to be reviewed. The policy was changed in February 2021 so that those sentenced when over 18 would no longer qualify for any review of their tariff. Clause 105 puts this into statute.
The age of criminal responsibility is 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and eight in Scotland. Therefore, it is theoretically possible, although it would be exceedingly rare, for someone to commit a murder, be given a DHMP sentence and still be under 18 two years after the halfway point of their tariff, so as to qualify for additional review. Accordingly, the JCHR was told that experts could not imagine a circumstance where someone would qualify for the additional review under this new provision. The effect of this clause is therefore to reduce the frequency of reviews of minimum terms and all but remove the possibility of a review beyond the halfway point. This should not happen.
The Government should seek to identify changes in the process of the DHMP tariff reviews so that they can lessen the distress caused to the families of victims. A child who commits an offence was still a child when they did so, even if they have reached the age of 18 while awaiting sentence or in custody. DHMP sentences should remain under continual review.
Amendments 204 and 206 to Clause 107 propose the main changes to time spent in custody, based on paragraphs 46 to 56 of the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Clause 107 would change the custodial period for children serving sentences of detention of over seven years when sentenced under Section 250 of the Sentencing Act 2020. The Bill would require children serving these sentences to spend two-thirds of their sentence in custody rather than half, as is the case now, with the rest of their sentence spent on licence in the community. Article 40 of the UNCRC emphasises
“the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society.”
The UNCRC is clear that detention must be
“a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
A policy to increase the length of time children spend in custody requires proper justification. The Government’s relevant White Paper argues that spending longer in custody means that those who commit offences will have more time to focus on rehabilitative interventions. However, we heard from witnesses in the JCHR interviews that spending longer in custody hinders reintegration into society, and this would worsen reoffending rates. It is particularly important that for serious child offenders there is a clear focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Clause 107 is likely to shift the focus towards punishment. This may well be counterproductive in reducing offending.
Children sentenced to detention under Section 250 of the Sentencing Act 2020 should, as they do now, spend half their sentence in custody and half being monitored in the community, to support their reintegration into the community. This amendment would prevent the release point for children sentenced to detention under Section 250 of the Sentencing Act 2020 being pushed back to two-thirds of the way through their sentence.
The UN committee has consistently expressed concern about the laws and procedures relating to children that do not properly take into account their age and maturity. I am not clear, for example, why the Government do not seem to be taking steps to address inequalities and any inequities that exist with children who were below the age of 18 at the time of committing the offence but who turn 18 prior to conviction. The UN committee will review our systems next year. I hope that it will be able to record progress. Amending this Bill would be a step forward. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I will speak to the issues raised in these amendments. In summing up the last group of amendments, the Minister said that we had to achieve the proper balance between rehabilitation and punishment. This is even more important in the area of youth justice which we touched on—admittedly with a bit of elasticity of the rules—in the previous group of amendments, but which are particularly relevant here and will occur later in this Bill as we deal with other measures.
The balance between what I would call repair and support for young people and punishment is one of great importance, and we must adjust that balance with great care indeed. This country, along with many others, recognises that children should be treated differently from adults in the justice system. However, there is a concerning trend in this government-expressed Bill, particularly in Clause 104, towards what I would call harsher treatment of older children, and bringing the sentencing of children closer into line with adults. This clause in particular proposes extending whole-life orders in exceptional circumstances to offenders aged 18 to 20. These are the most severe sentences that can be handed down by the courts. The other clauses also touch on the balance that I am talking about.
The Sentencing Council gives a full explanation of why children have to be treated differently, referring to lack of maturity, acting impulsively, inexperience, emotional volatility and negative influences as factors that ought to be considered. In particular, it notes that children and young people are likely to be susceptible to peer pressure. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in her example in the last group, referred to exactly that sort of problem, when young people respond to peer pressure and then resent and turn from it afterwards.
Clause 101 would permit the court to diverge from mandatory minimum sentences only when there are “exceptional circumstances”. This is change from the current wording, “particular circumstances”. Neither “particular” nor “exceptional” have been defined in law, or in this Bill, or in the Explanatory Notes associated with the Bill. So who is going to interpret “exceptional circumstances”? If it is to be the Secretary of State, where does that definition exist? Perhaps the Minister could give us the definition at the end.
I went to the dictionary, as one always does to look up words, and looked up “exceptional”. There are at least four definitions, ranging from “only likely to happen very infrequently” to “having much more than average intelligence, ability, or skill”. With that breadth of difference in the understanding of “exceptional”, I am sure that there is a great deal of work to be done on that definition. There is a world of difference between “likely to happen very infrequently” and “beyond the average”, which is the other interpretation that you could give to this word. Either way, it is important that the Government tell us why they have made that change and what it means in practice.
My second point is about the discrimination elements in these amendments. The Government have recognised that these clauses have a disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children. We have only to turn to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report. Basing its comments on the Human Rights Act 1998, it says:
“Discrimination may be justified, but only where the difference of treatment pursues a legitimate aim and where there is a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised.”
The report says that many of the witnesses who were interviewed questioned whether the Bill had gone too far and does discriminate. So there are questions to be asked as to whether the Bill breaches the right that people have under that 1998 law.
The report further states:
“The government recognises the unequal effect of these measures in its Bill, but does not provide any mitigation”.
So can the Minister provide an explanation of the measures they propose to mitigate the impact of this discriminatory effect on BAME children? The House will need to consider whether these measures need to be written into the Bill, but I hope the Minister might undertake that action could be taken through government amendments.
The Bill proposes extending whole-life orders in exceptional circumstances to offenders aged 18 to 20, and these, as I said, are the most severe sentences. But those who offend as children should not lose the opportunity to benefit from the youth sentencing framework and rehabilitation periods, because system delays there are not of their fault.
The court delays we have at the moment existed before Covid and have been exacerbated since. In the year ending December 2019, before Covid, the average delay between offence and court completion was 160 days—nearly 23 weeks. That is eight weeks longer than in 2011, despite the reduction between 2011 and 2019 in the number of youth offence court cases. Covid has made this situation so much worse. Can the Minister confirm that those who cross the age threshold because of these delays will not be subject to a more severe sentence?
In a recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, the chief inspector said about the impact on black and minority-ethnic children:
“Half of the boys in the inspected cases had faced racial discrimination in their life; a third had been victims of criminal exploitation and a quarter had a disability … Yet many of these children are only receiving support with these needs for the first time through the criminal justice system.”
By looking at the criminal justice system we are looking at the cart, but the horse has already bolted from the stable. This is quite clearly unacceptable. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation says so, and I believe we need to revisit the amendments the Government have tabled to ensure that the proper balance is achieved, as the Minister said in response to the previous group of amendments. Proper balance does not mean turning the dial far more towards punishment than towards the repair of these young people.
My Lords, I speak on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on this occasion, who could not be here today. I add my support to Amendments 198, 199, 200 and 201, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, which deal with tariff starting points or DHMP sentences as they relate to young people. The noble Baroness laid out well the case for amending Clause 104 so that it takes into account evidence on maturation. I will briefly add the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby’s perspective as a Lord spiritual and as part of a team of Bishops focused on Her Majesty’s prisons, particularly young offender institutions. She also declares an interest as vice-chair of the Children’s Society.
Children ought to be treated as children, and we resist any erosion of that in law. If we are to argue to the contrary we must be content to go against the trajectory of every other arena of English law. Eighteen is soon to become the age at which people can legally marry, leave education and join the Armed Forces. I urge noble Lords to reflect on this. If we project from this that children are to be protected from making decisions about marriage, education and even enlisting in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces until they reach a maturation point of 18, then the same logic surely must continue to apply in this instance.
The net consequence of Clause 104 would be more children spending longer in custody. Put simply, with very few under-16s impacted, the result would be more older teenagers receiving more severe sentences than is currently the case.
I intend to oppose Clause 103 being added to the Bill. Clause 103 would make it possible for judges to impose whole life orders on offenders aged 18 to 20. Our amendment would ensure that the minimum age for imposing a whole life order does not drop below 21. Although these are not legally children, in common with Clause 104, Clause 103 fails to take into account the Government’s 2015 response to the report by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, into the deaths of 18 to 24 year -olds in custody, where the Government agreed that
“It is widely recognised that young adults, particularly males, are still maturing until around 25 years of age.”
I am grateful to the Prison Reform Trust for its briefing on this and for highlighting that the origin of Clause 103 derives entirely from a single recent case. I understand the strength of feeling around that particularly tragic case, as it resulted in terrible loss of life. However, I do not believe there is any justification for extending whole life orders to young adults in this manner.
As Christians, we on these Benches might be somewhat predisposed to second chances and redemption through Christ. Under the proposals in this Bill, a young person, who the Government’s own research says has not reached full maturation, could be imprisoned for perhaps 60 or 70 years without any prospect of redemption or restoration. There is a wider argument here against whole life orders in principle but, until now, the law has recognised that for under-21s a sentence of this magnitude has been too significant a prospect, for the reasons already outlined. I am yet to hear a compelling case for change.
This is not to say that crimes ought not to be appropriately punished and justice served. It is to say that choices made by a neurologically immature young person should not determine the whole fate of that person’s life. Young adults who are still maturing are more capable of change and more likely to desist from crime in future.
We might even debate whether many of the young people in Her Majesty’s young offender institutions have had the ability to make real adult choices, free from abuse, coercion and manipulation, as the noble Lord, Lord German, just outlined. In reality, we are talking about a handful of cases, and children and young people deserve to be treated not as handfuls, but individually and separately.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on tabling these amendments. I will speak in particular on Clause 101. It is a real pity it is in the Bill, so I look forward to the Minister explaining exactly why it is here, particularly after having heard your Lordships.
Mandatory prison sentences could lead to a repeat of what happens in the USA, where there are three-strike laws, which are partly responsible for their obscene rates of incarceration: nearly 1% of the American population is in prison or jail, and this is very racially unbalanced. That is not to say that there are not many situations in which people should be sent to prison for these offences, but this blanket approach takes out any nuance whatever. It is easy for the Government to increase prison sentences and set mandatory minimum sentences; they can go around to the tabloids and say, “See what we’re doing. We’re being tough on crime”. It is much more difficult, but more important, to deliver real rehabilitation and diversion so that people do not reoffend and we do not take up huge amounts of taxpayers’ money keeping them in prison. I love the word that the noble Lord, Lord German, used—“repair”. We talk about rehabilitation, but “repair” is a superb word when talking about some of these very damaged children. Will the Government be adding any rehabilitation or diversion to these mandatory sentences, so that people do not offend three times, or will they just say “job done” and rely on the deterrent effect alone?
Most worrying to me on this list of offences is the inclusion of drugs offences. We should be moving towards a legalised and fully regulated drugs supply that is as safe as it can be. Creating a minimum sentence of seven years for drugs offences is a huge backwards step and will make the supply of drugs a lot more violent and dangerous, as people will have so much more to lose if they get caught.
On the previous amendment on the disclosure of cautions, I learned today from an amazing source that the illegal Prorogation of Parliament was wiped from the bound Hansard records. It apparently has ceased to exist in the bound version. It strikes me that, if we can delete all references in bound Hansard to the illegal Prorogation of Parliament—thanks to our esteemed Prime Minister Boris Johnson—surely we can be a little kinder to young people.
On “exceptional circumstances”, we all know that if you are a water company, exceptional circumstances mean you can release a sewage discharge any time you like, so, presumably, “exceptional” can be anything you want it to be, which is a little bit upsetting when it comes to the law, where words matter and should be more precise.
I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of all this, because I think it is rather nasty, hard-line and discriminatory.
I thank my noble friend Lady Massey for introducing these amendments. She did so comprehensively, and I shall speak very briefly in support of them.
When most young people go into custody, they will serve half their sentence in custody and the other half out on licence or on a training order. The gist of the Bill is to increase the custody element to two-thirds, while the amendments would put that back to half the period. As I have said on other amendments, I have an aversion to sentence inflation, and this is an example of it. There is no evidence that I am aware of that it would reduce reoffending. Rehabilitation is available within both the youth estate and the adult estate, but it is so much better if it can be engaged while outside prison.
On principle, I am against sentence inflation. My noble friend has set out with her normal expertise why, when looking at a wider context of international law, this example of sentence inflation is not appropriate. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, these amendments, which I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for putting down, all relate to custodial sentences for children. There were one or two points that she made that I shall perhaps respond to when we get to group 9, because there is a little bit of an overlap with some of the points there. I hope that she will forgive me if I respond to some of the points then, but I shall seek to respond to the majority now.
As the Committee will be aware, there is a separate and distinct sentencing framework for children. When sentencing children, the courts have to take into account two statutory considerations: the principal aim of the youth justice system, which is to prevent offending by children and young people, and the welfare of the child. I hope that overlaps with some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord German, emanating from the Sentencing Council.
Although, therefore, custody should always be a last resort for children, there will be some cases where it is necessary, and we believe that the court is best placed to determine the appropriate sentence. But those who commit the most serious offences, and who pose a risk to the public, should serve an amount of time in custody which reflects the seriousness of their offending.
Against that background, let me go through the relevant clauses and amendments. Clause 101 relates to—and I underline this point—minimum sentences. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, on a few occasions referred to “mandatory” sentences. The clause is not headed “mandatory sentences”; the words “mandatory sentence” do not appear in this Bill, except in one place, Clause 101(8), which refers back—it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is not in his place, because we have a nice piece of parliamentary drafting here—to Section 399(c) of the Sentencing Code “(mandatory sentence requirements)”, but that refers to a minimum sentence where the conditions set out in the clause do not apply.
I have two points to make in this regard. First, minimum sentences are not mandatory in the sense that they must be imposed. They are a mandatory consideration that the court must make before passing a sentence unless the provision in the sentence is met. Secondly, the Bill does not introduce minimum sentences for under-18s for the first time. Offenders aged 16 or 17 are already subject to minimum sentencing provisions if convicted of threatening with a weapon or bladed article, or a repeat offence involving a weapon or bladed article.
The threshold for courts to depart from imposing a minimum sentence is open to them, the question being whether the test is met. This amendment aims to ensure that the change in the threshold will not apply to offenders aged 16 and 17 who are convicted of these two offences. In Clause 101 we seek to ensure that courts depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances.
The purpose of a minimum sentence is that unless the threshold is met—we will debate in another group what that threshold should be—the minimum sentence is imposed. There is nothing between us on how it works; there obviously is on whether it is a good idea. I hope that is fair.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but in sentencing law and in the criminal justice system, minimum sentences are currently referred to as “mandatory minimum sentences”, subject to thresholds and exceptions such as exceptional circumstances. That is a very long tradition. As lawyers we must be fair to lay Members of the Committee as well. It is unfair to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has missed the point. It is very common in the parlance of sentencing law and criminal justice law to refer to minimum sentences as “mandatory minimum sentences”, subject to whatever thresholds and exceptions there are.
The point I am making is very important and we will get to it in another group. I absolutely accept that people use “mandatory sentence” in a common parlance way, but when we get to a later group, we will discuss what the test should be. I will not delay the Committee now, but the figures for when the minimum sentence is not actually imposed are surprising. People using the phrase “mandatory sentence” would be surprised to hear that in a third and sometimes nearly half of cases, the minimum sentence is not given. If “mandatory” does not apply in a third of cases, I question whether it is the appropriate word. Therefore, we must bear in mind that we are dealing with a minimum sentence with a provision, whether that is “exceptional” or some other test. I certainly do not seek to criticise the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for using the shorthand. I wanted to point out that it is a shorthand which can be misleading when one looks at the facts as to how such sentences are imposed.
What is the essential difference in my noble friend’s mind between exceptional and particular circumstances? Is not the truth of the matter that he wants the default position to be a custodial sentence, whereas there was greater discretion to the judge when the particular circumstances were what the law was to consider?
As I say, there is a specific amendment on that point, so I will come to this in more detail then, if I may. The question is about when you depart from the minimum sentence. We are dealing here with the scope of the exception—that might be an unfortunate word, because one of the words we are using to qualify the exception is “exceptional”—and whether the exception is in circumstances which are just in the case, which I think is the gist of one of the amendments in a later group, or exceptional circumstances. I absolutely accept that one has a minimum sentence, which we can call the default, with an exception. It is always for the judge to decide, looking at the offence and the offender, whether the test is met. I will come in a moment to the words “exceptional circumstances” in particular.
What we want to do, to underline the point, is to ensure that courts depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. That reflects the seriousness of the offences and the risks posed to others. We believe that will create greater consistency in the statutory provisions on minimum sentences which apply to other offences. This change does not mean—
Unless the exception is met, this is the sentence that will be imposed. I do not want to split hairs with the noble Baroness, but it is not mandatory in that sense. It is a minimum sentence which has to be imposed unless the conditions are met.
It is awfully important in these kinds of cases that we are very clear and precise in our language. There is a difference between minimum and mandatory. I think what the Minister is actually saying is that this is a mandatory sentence unless there is an exception.
It is not a mandatory sentence, because you can impose more. Let us be clear: it is a minimum sentence, which has to be imposed unless the exceptions are met. To take it outside this clause, if you have a minimum sentence of two years unless there is an exception, the first question is: is the exception met? If it is not, you have to give at least two years. You do not have to give two years; you could give two and a half years. I am not sure I am saying anything different. Reference has been made to America. In other jurisdictions, when they say mandatory, it can be mandatory without exceptional circumstances or any other provision. I am not sure we are saying anything different. I think we are all clear about what we mean. I would prefer to use the phrase “a minimum sentence”, which is the phrase used in the Bill, unless the exception applies.
I am so sorry to elongate this, but it is important. The Minister, sitting in a Government with a massive majority, gets to rewrite the statute book, but he does not get to change terms that are well understood by lawyers and sentencers in this jurisdiction and others. He is proposing a mandatory minimum sentence subject to certain exceptions. The common parlance—perhaps not on the street, but in the profession and on the Bench—is that this is a mandatory minimum sentence. He can argue for it and say that it is good policy, but it is not helpful to the Committee, anyone outside it or anyone reading Hansard for us to suggest that this is something totally different from a mandatory minimum sentence subject to exceptional circumstances.
I am really not sure that we are saying anything different. As I said, we will come in a later group to how many offenders do not get the minimum sentence with some sentences. There must come a point at which so many offenders do not get it that using the word “mandatory” to describe it is itself misleading. I suggest we are better off sticking to the terms used in the Bill, which are both accurate and appropriate.
I underline the point that the change we are proposing does not mean that all 16 and 17 year-olds will receive the minimum sentence. The courts will retain the discretion not to apply the minimum where there are exceptional circumstances which relate to either the offender or the offence and which would justify doing so.
I will come in a moment to the word “exceptional” as I think that was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord German. I have been a little diverted on the way, but we will get there.
What the courts will therefore do is to continue to take the child’s welfare needs into consideration. I also point out, of course, that the actual minimum sentence for 16 and 17 year-olds, when given, is shorter than that for over-18s when given: four months as opposed to six months. Applying minimum sentences to 16 and 17 year-olds—the older cohort of under-18s—recognises the increased maturity and development of this age group compared with younger children. Any custodial sentence is given as a last resort, but we believe that for older children who commit these particular offences, it should be mandatory for the court to consider carefully whether a custodial sentence is appropriate.
I wonder if the Minister could be a little clearer. A moment ago he cited figures for the number of cases under existing law in which, apparently, mandatory sentences are not passed because judges took the circumstances into account. When you couple his description of those figures with the phraseology that he is using now about the merits of the Bill, the impression is very clear that the Government are not happy with the judges citing exceptional circumstances in failing to deliver the kind of sentence that the Bill would impose. Am I right to understand that he is, in fact, critical of the number of exceptions that are made at present and wants fewer of these in future?
I am certainly not critical of any particular sentence passed in any particular case. What I do think the figures show is that we need a test that more clearly balances the minimum sentence on the one hand with the exception on the other. We think the test of exceptional circumstances—I know that the noble Lord, Lord German, is waiting patiently—meets that test.
I turn now to Clause 104 and 105, which both relate to children who have committed murder and will therefore receive the mandatory life sentence of detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. I hear in this regard the words read to us on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. When giving a life sentence, the judge sets a minimum amount of time that must be spent in custody before the offender may be considered for release by the Parole Board. This is known colloquially as the tariff. Judges use starting points to determine that tariff. They can set a minimum term higher or lower than the starting point by taking into account aggravating or mitigating factors. Currently, there is a 12-year starting point for all children who commit murder.
In this Bill, we are replacing the fixed 12-year starting point for all children—what might be called the mandatory starting point—with a range of starting points that take into account the child’s age at the time of the offence and the seriousness of the murder. The age groups are to reflect the different stages of development that a child goes through and that, although both in law are children, a 10 year-old is very different from a child of 17 years and 10 months. The different levels of murder, if I can put it that way, are based on the more nuanced system used for adults, which takes the seriousness of a murder into consideration. Therefore, the twin factors of age and the seriousness of the murder are then brought together. The higher the age and the more serious the murder, the higher the starting point, and the converse is also the case.
This amendment retains a range of starting points for children based on three age groups, but it does not distinguish between the levels of seriousness of a murder. Because murder can vary in seriousness in the criminal sense, we believe it is right that the starting points should reflect this as well. We do not agree that starting points should only be based on the age of the child; they should also reflect the seriousness of the murder. Moreover, the amendment does not address the gap in starting points between older children and adults. A child of 17 years and 10 months is very close to becoming an adult. The amendment would mean that the same category of murder would have a 12-year starting point for a 17 year-old, but a 30-year starting point for an 18 year-old. However, I underline the same point that I made about minimum sentences. The judiciary will continue to take the individual circumstances of a case into consideration and can give a minimum term higher or lower than any given starting point.
Let me address the review amendments. Children who are sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure are eligible to apply for a review of their minimum term. In this Bill, we are placing the minimum term review process in legislation. It allows children who are aged under 18 when sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure to apply for a minimum term review at the halfway point. We are restricting eligibility for further reviews to be available only to those who still aged under 18 at the time of the further review. By contrast, this amendment would allow those sentenced as an adult to apply for a review at the halfway point and continue to apply every two years. It would also allow adults who were sentenced as children, who have already had one review, to continue to apply for a review every two years. This amendment is neither necessary nor in line with case law. That is because, under the measures in the Bill, children who are sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure will continue to be eligible for a review at the halfway point of their minimum term.
That right has developed through case law. It recognises the unique rights of children and the fact that they develop and mature at a faster rate than adults. The review is an important part of confirming that the minimum term remains appropriate or determining if a reduction should be made. However, they should be eligible for a further review only if they are still a child at the time of that further review. This is because, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, children have the greatest capacity to demonstrate the significant changes to maturity and outlook that the review considers. Therefore, the opportunity for multiple reviews would be available only to younger children at the initial time of offending, as they are more likely to be under the age of 18 at the time of any further review.
Those who commit murder as a child but are sentenced as an adult have already had their age and maturity taken into consideration. Adults who commit murder are not entitled to reviews and so this Bill ensures that all offenders who are an adult at the time of sentencing are treated equally. It is important to remember that we are talking about the most serious offence, that of murder. The minimum term set by the judge takes into consideration a child’s age and maturity at the time of the offence and reflects the seriousness of the offence. That minimum period should therefore be served, except in exceptional circumstances.
That brings me to the question of the definition of exceptional circumstances, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for his patience. “Exceptional circumstances” is a phrase used all over the law and the criminal law. It is a matter that judges are well used to interpreting. It is a phrase in plain English. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, it does not need, or would benefit from, a gloss from the Dispatch Box. The phrase means what it says on the tin. It is for the individual judge in the individual case, having heard the evidence, to decide whether the exception is made out.
Can the noble Lord tell me the difference, then, between the current words, which are “particular circumstances”, and those that the Bill is proposing—“exceptional circumstances”? What is the difference between “particular” and “exceptional” to the fraternity of judges and lawyers who do not need it written down because they all understand it? For those of us who are non-lawyers, some definition would be helpful.
I hear the words, “higher bar”. I do not disagree that “exceptional circumstances” is a stricter test. There is case law on that, although the name of the case has slipped my mind, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord German. I see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who may remember, is here. I am sorry to give him exam questions. “Exceptional” is a word that has been passed and interpreted by the courts at a high level. It is proper to leave it to them to decide what “exceptional circumstances” means. However, I will write to the noble Lord with the case law, once my memory comes back to me.
I will now move to the last of the amendments to Clause 107. Children who commit the gravest crimes can be given a standard determinate sentence known as a section 250 sentence. This sentence has automatic release at the halfway point; the remainder is served on licence in the community. In this Bill, we are moving automatic release from the halfway to the two-thirds point for section 250 sentences of seven years or more which have been given for the most serious violent offences and all serious sexual offences. These are sexual offences with a maximum penalty of life, as well as manslaughter, attempted murder, soliciting murder and wounding with intent to commit grievous bodily harm.
In this regard, we are taking a different approach for children from adults in two respects. First, we are not changing the release point for children sentenced to between four and seven years, but only for those sentenced to seven years or longer. For adults, it includes the four to seven-year cohort as well. Secondly, for those children who are sentenced to seven years or longer, we are focusing on only the most serious of offences which pose a significant threat to public safety. By contrast, the amendment would retain automatic release at the halfway point, regardless of length or offence committed. For the reasons I have set out, we think that inappropriate.
I am conscious that I have said quite a bit on this, but we have had some debate on what “mandatory” means. I will finish with three points. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked where Scotland and Wales are with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There was the Supreme Court case with the Scottish legislation, but, as I am not sure exactly where the devolved Administrations are up to, I will write with the up-to-date information.
Secondly, a discrimination point was made. The Bill is fully compliant with convention rights, as my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford has certified under Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act.
Thirdly, I will take a moment to respond to the point from the noble Lord, Lord German, about those who cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood because of delays in court. Sentencing powers are determined, consistently with what I have been saying, by the offender’s age at the time of conviction. However, sentencing guidelines make it clear that the courts should use a sentence that would have been given at the time the offence was committed as a starting point. In addition, they emphasise that sentencers should take an offender’s maturity and any other factors into account even after they turn 18. In terms of delays, youth cases have been prioritised and are regularly reviewed to ensure that they are being listed as expeditiously as possible, listing being a judicial function, especially cases that involve youths in custody and those where a child is almost 18. I hope that answers the noble Lord’s point.
For the reasons I have set out, I hope the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I did not quite realise it would end up in a dispute about the semantics. I am not a lawyer, and I think the law should be clear; I think I know the difference between “particular” and “exceptional”, but I will not go there again today. I thank noble Lords for their support for the amendments and the incisive, perceptive comments they have made.
I go back to my earlier premise that we must remember that, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children are those under 18, not 16. Everything that has been said by colleagues today expresses concern about the treatment of children in our youth justice system.
This has been a concern of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for years. As I said, it will be reporting back again next year on how we treat our children in the youth justice system. I hope that it finds something more acceptable than what it has in the past. By amending this Bill, we could possibly move a step forward on that issue.
The issue, for me, is that this is about children’s rights, and we should really consider those. I noted the comments of several colleagues. The noble Lord, Lord German, brought up the important issue of who is in the system and how black and minority-ethnic children, especially boys, are overrepresented in the system. We should think about that carefully.
The Government speak about levelling up in society, but I think the strategy set out in much of this Bill will do just the opposite. I will of course read carefully the comments of the Minister. I am afraid that I cannot stay for his later comments on a different group, but I will also read those carefully.
We must remember that children do not arrive fully formed at the age of 16—or any age, for that matter. We have recently been presented with research on the brains of adolescents and children which comes up with some surprising examples of how the brain does not in fact mature until over the age of 18, certainly, and that children should be treated as children. This provides unequal effects on children.
As has been said in the debate today, children have been affected by Covid and by the developmental health issues it brought about, as well as by the effects of delays on sentencing. All in all, I do not think that this is a very happy story as far as children are concerned.
I will need to consult other colleagues who have spoken today and respond to those organisations and individuals who have been so important in giving advice on these amendments to the Bill. Youth justice is such an important issue, which I feel we must push further on Report. I will not respond to all the Minister’s points today, because that would take a long time; I may wish to have a discussion with him, if he will consent, about some of these important issues. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 191 withdrawn.
Amendment 192 not moved.
192A: Clause 101, page 86, line 20, leave out “there are exceptional” and insert “such a sentence would be contrary to the interests of justice having regard to”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, along with Lord Marks’ amendment to page 86, line 23, would remove the requirement for the circumstances to be exceptional before a judge was empowered to decline to impose the minimum sentence (for offences of threatening with weapon or bladed article) and would entitle the judge to do so where in the circumstances the judge concluded that such a sentence would be contrary to the interests of justice.
My Lords, all the amendments in this group are in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, whom I thank for adding his name to them. We have of course covered some of the ground covered by our amendments in the last group, but there remains, I suggest, considerable scope for developing these very important arguments.
These amendments are put down with two objectives in mind. The first and principal objective is to preserve judicial discretion in sentencing, which the Bill threatens seriously to undermine or remove. The second objective is to express our concerns that minimum sentences do nothing to improve our penal system or our sentencing practice, that they impede rather than foster reform and rehabilitation, and that they fuel sentence inflation.
Clause 101 would require a sentencing judge to impose minimum sentences for a number of offences in the absence of “exceptional circumstances” relating to the offence or the offender which would justify not imposing the minimum sentences. Clause 101(2) relates to the minimum sentences—called in the code “appropriate custodial sentences”, but minimum sentences none the less—applicable under Section 312 for, as we have heard, offences of threatening a person with an offensive weapon or a bladed or pointed weapon or article. For those offences, the code prescribes minimum sentences of a four-month detention and training order for 16 and 17 year-olds; a six-month detention in a young offender institution for 18 to 20 year-olds; and for those aged 21 or over, six months’ imprisonment. Those sentences currently apply unless there are
“particular circumstances which … relate to the offence or to the offender”
and which “would make it unjust” to pass such a sentence “in all the circumstances.”
The new provision proposed in the Bill would change that test to require the passing of the minimum sentence unless the court concluded that there were “exceptional circumstances” which related to the offence or to the offender and justified not imposing a sentence. The significant change is the elevation of the requirement for there to be “particular circumstances” to a requirement for there to be “exceptional circumstances” before a judge is entitled to depart from the required minimum sentence. At first blush, that may not seem to be a much more onerous requirement, but it marks a very important change.
I confess that I was a little surprised that the Minister ducked the challenge from my noble friend Lord German to define the term “exceptional circumstances”. He shakes his head, but I felt he did. My understanding has always been that, in law, the word “exceptional” has a well-recognised meaning. I have no doubt I will be corrected by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, if he disagrees, but “exceptional” in this or similar contexts means circumstances that are completely out of the ordinary. Judges regard themselves as bound not to find exceptional circumstances unless that high bar is met.
On the previous group, the Minister drew the distinction between minimum and mandatory sentences. He is right up to a point, but the move to a requirement for “exceptional circumstances” reduces that distinction by a considerable margin. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, described them as “mandatory minimum sentences”. The fact is that the Government are trying to reduce the scope to depart from the minima. They are trying to reduce the number of people not getting those minimum sentences. My noble friend Lord Beith hit the point when he asked whether the Government were unhappy with the high number of departures from the minima on the present phraseology, which I suggest shows the fallacy in the Minister relying on the number of departures there are at present.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, was right in describing this as a proposal for a default sentence. In practical terms, a judge might well believe that the particular circumstances of the offence and/or the offender—under the current phraseology—were such that the justice of the case required a custodial sentence of less than the minimum level or a non-custodial sentence. “Particular” in that context bears its ordinary English meaning. It refers to the circumstances that apply to the offence in question—that particular offence —or to that individual offender. However, the use of the word “exceptional” is calculated to require the sentencing judge, in the majority of cases, to pass the minimum sentence even if the judge took the view that the minimum sentence might cause injustice. That is the weakness of these provisions.
Clause 101(3) would impose a minimum sentence of seven years for a third class A drug-trafficking offence, subject to exactly the same test. Clause 101(4) would impose a minimum sentence of three years for a third offence of domestic burglary—again, subject to the same test. Clause 101(5) would impose the same minimum sentences for a repeat offence of carrying an offensive weapon or possessing a bladed or pointed article in a public place or in educational premises as those which apply for any offence of the threatening offences to which subsection (2) refers—again, on the same conditions.
It will be clear from what I have said so far that these minimum sentence provisions represent a serious reduction in the discretionary powers of sentencing judges to exercise leniency when the circumstances require that. That fetter on judicial discretion we regard as entirely unwelcome. The Minister used the phrase “it is always for the judge to decide”. Under the new regime that will be inaccurate, and we believe that sentencing law should not impose on judges a requirement that they pass sentences that they themselves regard as unjust and would be unwilling to pass. That is bad for judges, it is bad for the criminal justice system, and I venture to suggest that it is bad for public confidence.
Our amendments would involve the removal of the requirement for there to be “exceptional circumstances” before a judge could depart from the proposed minimum sentences. Instead, the judge would need to be satisfied that
“such a sentence would be contrary to the interests of justice, having regard to circumstances which … relate to the offence or to the offender”,
and which justified the judges declining to impose such a sentence. We believe that the law and Parliament should learn to trust the judges. One regrettable thread running through this part of the Bill is the withdrawal of that trust, represented by a reduction in the ambit of judicial discretion.
Our second point is that another regrettable thread running through this part of the Bill is an apparently strongly held view on the part of this Government that longer sentences are better sentences. We believe that view is profoundly misplaced. I agree with many of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, on both these issues. Without going into detail because these issues have been canvassed in this House and elsewhere on many occasions, I say that the vast weight of evidence is to the contrary. It does not point to the proposition that longer sentences are better sentences.
We share the profound concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, about sentence inflation, so often expressed by many Members of the House experienced in the criminal justice system. We imprison too many people for too long. Our prisons are overcrowded and underfunded and the record of prison in achieving the reform and rehabilitation of offenders is extremely bad. I reiterate what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, to the effect that long sentences impede rehabilitation and reform, and that goes for adults as well as for young people and children. I beg to move.
My Lords, I sometimes wonder when I read statutes that make provision for sentencing whether those who are responsible for the ideas behind them or those responsible within the department have any idea how difficult it is to pass a sentence. It is easy in a debate like this to talk about two years, three years, seven years, probation or whatever it might be, but it is not like that in the real world. When we have to consider minimum sentences—and I love the semantics about whether we are talking about an obligatory minimum sentence or mandatory sentence subject to exceptions—the ultimate requirement for a sentencing judge is to pass a just sentence. That is why I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks.
I am sorry that I am going to take time about this, but there are perhaps four ingredients of a sentence that we now have to consider. One is societal attitude to the crime. Judges get that from what Parliament says that the maximum sentence must be. Dangerous driving causing death, in my lifetime, has gone from two years to five years, 10 years, 14 years and now life. That is Parliament reflecting the seriousness with which society, reflected by Parliament, sees the crime. That always works in the sentencing process. On the rare occasions when a maximum sentence is reduced, as it was with theft, from seven years to five, that too is reflected in the sentencing requirements. However—and although I am used to it, it is no less pernicious—there is the minimum-term idea. Parliament has willed it to be so, and a judge has to be loyal to the Act of Parliament and the oath that he has taken. There it is: forget the semantics, but the starting point is X, and you can move from X only if circumstances permit it, which are now being elevated into “exceptional”.
But that is only the starting point. There is the actual crime itself. Is it a very bad case of its kind or not? This is of particular importance when using “exceptional”. There are many cases where more than one defendant is involved, and sometimes the sentencing judge has in front of him a gang. One member of the gang is a gullible gopher, the person chosen because he is a bit thick, who goes along with it. Do we start with him, with the same minimum sentence as all the others in the same gang? Yes, says this provision, unless it is exceptional. Then we have to remember the victim—the impact on the victim, how it has affected him or her, how long the awful or relatively minor effects will affect that person and how strong, weak, troubled or so on the victim may be. Then there is the defendant. Every single defendant is an individual. On one hand you have the gopher, while on the other you have the sophisticated criminal who does these crimes as a matter of ordinary employment.
My goodness, I could give noble Lords a lecture on this issue, I am not going to because I do not lecture the House, but I am looking at the Minister and members of his department when I use that word. All those ingredients go into making a sentencing decision, and the sentencing judge struggles to balance all of them, because there is a huge conflict on every occasion. If you introduce a minimum term, you have changed the nature of the exercise, which is not to decide in the light of all the ingredients of the defendant, the victim and the crime itself, because you have added a minimum term. The possibility that a judge should be required to pass a sentence that he or she regards as an unjust sentence on a particular individual in a particular case for a particular crime is really rather—I must moderate my language—appalling. A judge should never have to pass a sentence that he or she conscientiously regards as unjust. That is what is wrong with this provision.
I support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for very much the same reasons advanced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I very much favour the preservation of a judicial discretion; it is absolutely essential.
I worry very much indeed about sentencing inflation. When I was at the Home Office working as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the back end of the 1980s, I was a Prisons Minister. At that time, the prison population was around 40,000; it has now doubled—it is well into the 80,000s. Are the streets any safer? Does the community feel safer? The answer to that is manifestly that no, it does not.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, is utterly right when he says that longer sentences mean more people in custody. What is the consequence of that? If you pack people into prison, there is overcrowding and the chances for rehabilitation and retraining are greatly diminished. I know that from my personal experience: for three years or so, I was on the monitoring board of a local prison near me in Lincolnshire—actually, it was just over the border—and the chances of prisoners getting proper courses were very small, so the chances of rehabilitation were thereby much diminished.
The purpose of this clause is to ensure that, in the generality of cases, a prison sentence is the starting point. That is what is intended by using the phrase “exceptional circumstances” as the proviso. That is to say that it will be disapplied in a small minority of cases. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, made a very important point that we need to keep a grip on: exceptional circumstances may not exist, but the sentence could be unjust. So the noble and learned Lord is in fact saying to this Committee—and he is absolutely right—that the impact of the Government’s proposals is to drive the judiciary in particular cases to impose a sentence that they know to be unjust, because they cannot find exceptional circumstances. I find that wholly deplorable.
The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Marks, enlarges judicial discretion to make it more in accordance with the principles of natural justice. I very much favour that, and I hope that the Committee will do so as well.
My Lords, in the light of what my predecessor as Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has said, I can be very brief.
First, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Secondly, I do not think that we should beat about the bush at all about the change to the word “exceptional”. Any lawyer knows that the intention is to raise the bar significantly. You use that word only when you want to try to minimise the discretion or ambit of when it is to happen. I hope that the Minister will accept the clear intention of the change and answer the question posed in the earlier debate by the noble Lord, Lord German, about the difference. There is a clear and obvious difference.
Thirdly, having had a little less time as a judge and coming to the job a bit later, I can see an argument, which one has to accept, for saying that, by setting a minimum term, Parliament is giving an indication of what it thinks is appropriate. Perhaps that was not the right road to go down, but we have gone down it. But where this Government are wholly wrong—I do not think that we should mince our words about that—is in saying that a judge should impose a sentence that is not just. In refusing this amendment, the Government are saying, “We don’t care if injustice results: you must look at the circumstances, and if they are not exceptional” —a high bar—“you must impose an unjust sentence”. Have we really sunk so low as to require our judges not to do justice?
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I agree with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has made, but I want to give a different perspective that partly undermines the argument put by him and all the other noble, and noble and learned, Lords who have spoken. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that, ultimately, it is for judges to pass a sentence that is just. He pinned his argument on that single point.
We talked about youths in the previous group. For youth justice, the overarching purpose when sentencing is to reduce reoffending. That purpose supersedes the overall position of needing to be just in the sentence. That is why there is a minimum sentence in youth courts of four months. The reason is that, when you go to youth offender institutions or things like that, you are invariably told by the prison offers and teachers dealing with the young people that they need to be there for a duration of time to get their education. That is the justification for having a minimum sentence of four months in youth cases.
So, while I agree with the points that have been made, I put forward that particular exception where I agree with the appropriateness of that minimum sentence. Of course I agree with giving judges and magistrates discretion, so they are not tied down by minimum sentences, but I wanted to give that example of where I think a minimum sentence is appropriate. Having said that, I support the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Marks.
My Lords, these amendments seek to ensure that the courts depart from imposing a minimum sentence, to use the words of the amendment, only where it would be
“contrary to the interests of justice”
to do so, “having regard”—and then it refers to the particular requirements in the Bill on the offender and on offending. “Interests of justice” is not defined. I do not complain about that, because the phrase is used elsewhere and the courts know what it means. I do not want to go over old ground.
It is already the case that a court has the discretion not to impose the minimum sentence where there are particular circumstances relating to the offender, the nature of the offence or, in the case of repeat offending, the nature of the previous offence that would make it unjust to do so. I underline the point that whether that exception, however phrased, is met is for the judge to decide, based on the particular facts of the case. It is for Parliament to set the minimum sentence, if it wants to, and to set the “exceptional” provision—whether that is exceptional circumstances or however else it is defined. It is then for the judge to apply what Parliament has said.
As I said on the previous group, concerns have certainly been raised that offenders too often receive sentences below the minimum term. That both fails to provide an appropriate level of punishment that reflects the severity of the offence and undermines any sensible use of the word “mandatory” in this context. Let me give a couple of examples. Among adult offenders in 2020, at least—and I will explain my “at least” in a moment—50% received a sentence below the minimum term for third-strike domestic burglary. I said “at least” because the figures do not indicate whether these cases include early guilty pleas, for which they could get a reduction of up to 20%. Even allowing for that, at least 50% received a sentence below the minimum term. Of adults convicted of repeat possession of a weapon or bladed article, at least 21%—over a fifth—received a sentence below the minimum term.
I heard what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said and I am not going to beat about the bush, either. I am trying to be clear. There may well be a difference of opinion around the Committee, but at least let us identify it clearly. With this provision, we seek to ensure that courts depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. Those are clear words, and they mean what they say.
We believe that the test of exceptional circumstances is both suitable and important. Not only does it help to address problems that have been escalating in our communities for some years, especially with regard to knife crime, but it will create greater consistency in the statutory provisions on minimum sentences. The change is therefore intended to reduce the circumstances in which the court will depart from the minimum term, ensuring that this important safeguard is used only where the court considers that there are exceptional circumstances, pertaining to the offender or the offence, that would make the minimum sentence unjust.
The changes align the criteria used for these offences with the criteria for passing a sentence below the minimum term in relation to offences involving firearms, where the proviso of exceptional circumstances is already in the law. However, I underline that the judicial discretion for the court to fully consider the facts of the case before it and decide on the appropriate sentence in line with the statutory framework is therefore retained.
I listened carefully, as I know the noble and learned Lord would expect me to, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I think we may stray into almost philosophical areas, albeit very important ones, as to what a sentencer ought to do and perhaps even what we mean by “unjust” and where justice lies.
Parliament sets out the statutory framework. If the Bill is passed, Parliament will say that the minimum sentence is X years and that the proviso is exceptional circumstances. It is then for the judge to apply what Parliament has set out. That is the way our system operates. We can have an interesting debate about whether, if a judge does that, the judge can be doing something that is “unjust”. I fully understand where the noble and learned Lord is coming from, looking at “unjust” in a broader sense, but there is a basic justice in Parliament, which is ultimately where power resides, setting out what the minimum sentence and the exception should be and then leaving it for the judge to apply that exception on the facts of the case.
I heard very clearly the point made by my noble friend Lord Hailsham about whether longer sentences actually help. Again, that takes us into a whole different area. I mean no disrespect by not replying to him at length but we believe the sentences here are appropriate and suitable.
When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, concluded by saying, “Are we not to require our judges to do justice?”, I do not know whether he was intentionally paraphrasing the famous argument of Abraham to the Almighty. When the Almighty is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah even though there are some righteous people there, Abraham says to the Almighty, “Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” I hear very strongly that the ultimate requirement is to do justice, but I emphasise that in our system we start with the parliamentary legislation. That is why we collectively, here and in the other place, bear such a heavy burden. It is for us to set out the statutory framework and then for our judges and courts to apply that framework. That is ultimately the way, I suggest, that justice is done in our system.
I do not want to lecture the Committee any further on jurisprudential matters. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful for the speeches that we have heard in this interesting debate, particularly by those who have the most sentencing experience, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Judge and Lord Thomas. I am also grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his indication of the Labour Party’s support.
While I will withdraw the amendment at this stage, I will return to it on Report. My concern is that the Minister, and I am grateful for the care that he gave to his response, failed to appreciate quite how loyal judges are to the law. Where the law requires a judge to find that exceptional circumstances exist before making a departure from the minimum sentence, he will do so loyally.
The point that both noble and learned Lords made is that it is simply wrong for the law to require judges, where they might have found that the circumstances of an offence or an offender dictate that the just sentence is less than the minimum, to be in the position that they have to say, “I cannot here find that the circumstances are exceptional—that is, completely out of the ordinary—and although I believe that the sentence I am constrained to pass is unjust in the sense that it is the wrong sentence, I nevertheless have to do it.” That is the result of the loyalty judges feel to the law—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, mentioned the judicial oath—and is a weakness of this proposed provision, which puts political dogma above the need to do justice. Although I will withdraw my amendment now, I hope that, given the speeches we have heard, in the next few weeks or months, before Report—depending on when that is—we can talk to the Minister, take this matter further, and see if we can get some movement. Saying that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 192A withdrawn.
Amendments 192B to 194B not moved.
Clause 101 agreed.
195: After Clause 101, insert the following new Clause—
“Minimum sentence for an offence under section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(1) This section applies where—(a) an individual is convicted of an offence under section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and(b) the offence was committed after the commencement of this section and at a time when the individual was aged 18 or over.(2) The court shall impose an appropriate custodial sentence (or order for detention) for a term of at least the required minimum term (with or without a fine) unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify it not doing so.(3) In this section “appropriate custodial sentence (or order for detention)” means—(a) in the case of an offender who is aged 18 or over when convicted, a sentence of imprisonment, and(b) in the case of an offender who is aged under 18 at that time, a sentence of detention under section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. (4) In this section “the required minimum term” means seven years.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure those found guilty of abduction, sexual assault, and murder would receive a Whole Life Order as a starting sentence.
My Lords, this group contains three amendments in my name, and a Clause 103 stand part debate in the names of my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble and right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, neither of whom appears to be here at the moment. The amendments fall into two categories, but I make no complaint about them being grouped together. Amendments 195, 196 and 197 are based on the deep concern on this side of the Committee that the Government have not done enough in the Bill to mark their animosity to violence against women and girls.
Amendment 195 proposes a minimum sentence for an offence of rape under Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That minimum term—of seven years—applies unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or the offender which justify it not doing so. I propose that minimum term for rape without one iota of apology.
The framework for sentencing by the courts has to be set by Parliament. The way Parliament does this—as the two former Lord Chief Justices made clear—is by setting a maximum sentence, and the courts then reflect on what they conceive to be the justice of the case, as determined by the maximum. In exceptional cases—I use that word advisedly—it is appropriate for there to be minimum sentences as well. If there is a minimum sentence, the judge’s discretion is removed, but that is because Parliament is saying that particular offence merits a minimum sentence except in exceptional cases.
I strongly agree with the proposition that one should keep those sentences to the minimum. I also strongly agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, that, where Parliament says “exceptional circumstances”, for all the impressive sophistry of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, it is definitely saying, “We want the norm to be whatever the minimum is, and as few cases as possible should not be in the norm”. There is nothing wrong with Parliament doing that. Rape, in our view, is one of those cases.
I have the greatest respect for the judges—indeed, I should say as a declaration of interest, I am married to a judge—but I disagree strongly with the proposition that the effect of the amendment is to force judges to pass “unjust” sentences. Was the position after the 2003 Act was passed, which in effect increased the starting point for murder and the minimum term, that judges begin to pass unjust sentences? Of course not; what the judges were then doing was reflecting what Parliament had determined the framework was in relation to those sentences.
Without apology, I therefore say that there should be a minimum sentence for rape. That sentence should be departed from only in exceptional circumstances. It is important that Parliament sends out that message.
The second amendment, Amendment 196, says that where the name of a complainant in serious sexual cases is revealed by somebody, instead of it only being a fine that can be the sentence, they should be susceptible to a maximum of two years in prison. For very many people, it being made public that they have been the victim of a sexual assault is something of enormous anxiety. Parliament should send out the signal that where people reveal names, they could have a sentence of as high as two years—I am not saying in every case or as a minimum, but I am saying that Parliament should mark the seriousness of this and the fact that people can be put under enormous pressure by the threat of publicity.
The third amendment that we propose would require, in relation to a murder case which involves the abduction and sexual assault of a person, and then their murder, that the starting point for a crime as heinous as that should be a whole life term. Of course, applying the 2003 Act, the judge would need to take into account other factors, but a whole life term should be the starting point. There should not have been, as there was in a recent case, a debate about whether a whole life term could be imposed. We think it important that this Bill addresses the fact that violence against women and girls is not adequately dealt with by the criminal justice system at the moment. We are concerned that it does not do that. I put forward those three amendments without an iota of an apology.
The fourth thing in the group is whether Clause 103 should stand part. Clause 103 would make it possible for judges to impose a whole life order on offenders aged 18 to 20. We have touched on this in previous groups. We think a whole life term should be imposed only on somebody who is 21 or over—somebody unequivocally an adult—for all the reasons that have been debated before. We have very considerable doubts about that clause. I was going to say that I would wait for the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby to talk about it, but I will be waiting for a very long time, so I have made clear my position in relation to it.
My Lords, I have a feeling I am going to be in a minority in this Committee. As much as I like and admire the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken, I disagree with at least two of his amendments. I disagree with Amendment 195 on the minimum sentence for rape, partly because of the general point that I have made about judicial discretion already, which I am not going to repeat, and partly because—I draw now on my own experience as a criminal barrister; perhaps not a very distinguished one, but I was a genuine lawyer for quite a long time —rape is a broad spectrum of offence, from ones which one can comprehend to the truly awful. There is a spectrum here, and it is wrong to fetter the judicial discretion to the point envisaged by this amendment.
The other amendment I do not agree with would make the murder cases of the class described by the noble and learned Lord in Amendment 197 a whole life offence. I personally shrink from whole life sentences if they are mandatory. There are many cases where they are proper, but I would leave it to the judge. I very much dislike the concept of sending lots of people to mandatory whole life sentences with no prospect of rehabilitation.
The noble Viscount may be assuaged by the fact that what I am talking about is the starting point. Therefore, it is not a mandatory whole life term, it is a mandatory life sentence, and it is for the judge to indicate what the position is. The effect of my amendment is to say that the starting point is a whole life term.
We have been here before in previous debates. The effect is to make it mandatory unless there are some very powerful arguments against. If the noble and learned Lord will forgive me, having read his Amendment 197, I recognise that in many cases falling within that classification a whole life sentence would be appropriate: abduction, yes, murder, of course, but sexual assault? One needs to keep in mind that is a fairly broad offence from the relatively trivial to the very serious. I am not at all happy about including that as a triggering element which makes the whole life sentence the starting point. But I know I am in the minority on this point and the Committee will doubtless take a different view.
My Lords, we have heard which amendments are in this slightly disparate group. On Amendment 195, I am in agreement with the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and in disagreement with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, I am afraid, because it would require the courts to pass a minimum sentence of seven years for rape in the absence of exceptional circumstances. I fully accept that this amendment is motivated by a determination to respond strongly to the completely horrible offence of rape, and by a desire to be seen to be determined to tackle and reduce it by bringing offenders to justice and dealing with them with the full force of the criminal justice system through long sentences of imprisonment. Nevertheless, I cannot support the amendment.
On these Benches, we will take lessons from no one on how serious a crime rape is. Members on these Benches have spoken repeatedly of the need to increase the rates of reporting rape, the approach to investigating rape, ways of increasing rates of prosecutions and the rate of successful prosecutions for rape, and ensuring that courts, juries and the public—young and old—are fully aware of the meaning of consent. But we do not believe that a minimum seven-year sentence for rape will increase the number of victims prepared to report offences—particularly in cases where the assailant is known or related to them—or reduce the difficulty for the police in investigating rape, securing the co-operation of parties close to the case, securing witness statements or getting witnesses to give evidence in court. Nor do we believe that such a sentence would make it easier to secure convictions from juries, particularly in cases they might regard as borderline, against the background of appallingly low conviction rates.
We have heard many times about the background of failure to bring rapists to justice. In the year to March 2020, nearly 59,000 cases of rape were recorded by police in England and Wales. Of those, there were only 21,000-odd prosecutions and an appallingly low 1,400-odd convictions. We have also heard many times that in 57% of cases investigated by the police in that year, the victims withdrew their support for the prosecution. There is no evidence at all relied upon by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer—or, I suggest, in existence—that minimum sentences of seven years, or of any figure, would improve that position.
Every lawyer, investigator or judge who has ever had anything to do with criminal courts knows the extent to which one case of rape differs from another. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, is right about that. Although every case represents an egregious abuse, a standard minimum sentence cannot be justified. That brings me back to the points I made in the previous group about the importance of judicial discretion and the inappropriateness of a test requiring a judge to find exceptional circumstances before being permitted to pass less than the minimum sentence.
There is a minor point as well about the drafting of the amendment: it is unclear as to the age of the offender. Proposed new subsection (1)(a) applies the clause to offenders “aged 18 or over” at the date of the offence, while proposed new subsection (3)(a) applies to an offender under 18 at the date of conviction. There is an internal inconsistency which the noble and learned Lord may wish to consider.
Rape is a scourge. We must address it, reduce it and bring offenders to justice, as well as change the culture in our society that tolerates it and, as the noble and learned Lord said, does not control the appalling epidemic of violence against women and girls. But minimum sentences will do none of that.
Amendment 196 seeks to increase the sentence for naming a complainant. The noble and learned Lord is absolutely right that this offence can do great harm by removing anonymity; it can cause considerable distress and often psychological damage as well. Increasing it to a two-year maximum on indictment or 12 months on summary conviction is a sensible change to the law, which we support.
Amendment 197 would add
“the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of a person”
to the offences in Schedule 21 to the Sentencing Code for which a whole-life sentence is a starting point. I take it to mean that the whole-life sentence would be a starting point if all three elements were present: the abduction, the sexual assault and the murder.
The only reason I make that point is that there was a misunderstanding—not inherent in the noble Viscount’s speech, but that might have arisen from his speech—where he talked of sexual assault as being a very varied offence; of course it is, but here it is combined with abduction and murder.
I think the starting point argument made by the noble and learned Lord is valid because the starting point applies on the statute if the court considers that the seriousness of the offence, or a combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, is exceptionally high. It is only a starting point: it does not mean that judicial discretion is removed or even significantly fettered if particular circumstances applied to make that an inappropriate or unjust sentence. I see no reason why that should not be added to the list, which we already have, of heinous offences for which a whole-life order is a starting point. But I fully agree with the noble and learned Lord that we need to keep whole-life orders to a very restricted class of cases because they are sentences without hope.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby—whose position was eloquently expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham in the earlier group—oppose Clause 103 because new Section 321(3B) of the code would permit whole-life orders for those aged 18 to 20. We agree, for all the reasons they gave, and the reason that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, gave, that that is inappropriate. Whole-life orders should not be imposed in such cases.
My Lords, this is obviously an important set of amendments. I thank all those who spoke on the arguments put forward. We agree across the Committee that sexual violence is a devastating crime that can have lifelong impacts on victims and survivors. The noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on Thames, used the word, “scourge”. I do not disagree with that. He was also right to say that a change in culture is part of the solution here but also that these crimes have to be punished with sentences that match the severity of the offence.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said, the group of amendments encompasses a number of such crimes. Let me take each one in turn. I will start with the Amendment 195, which would require the court to impose a minimum custodial sentence of at least seven years for a rape offence committed under Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 unless, as stated in subsection (2), there are exceptional circumstances that justify not doing so. I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Lord that there is an important point here. He was making, it is fair to say, substantially the same point that I was making to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, about the roles of Parliament and the courts. Just as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has nothing but respect for the courts and judges, so do I. I should also say that my wife is a judge but she does not come anywhere near to sentencing anybody, so perhaps I do not have to make that declaration.
We agree on the principle that there are some cases in which it is right for Parliament to set out a minimum sentence with an exception, and other cases where it is appropriate to have greater judicial discretion. The real question is how we respond to each case, bearing in mind the scope of the sentences available to the sentencing judge.
Against that background, we have to remember that the maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment. Quite rightly, rape offenders already receive significant sentences. I remind the Committee that in 2020, the average—I underline “average”—custodial sentence given to adult offenders for a Section 1 rape offence, where the victim was 13 or over, was almost 10 years. That represents an increase of almost 15% over the past decade. Also in 2020, over two-thirds of those offenders received a custodial sentence of over seven years.
Also, in certain circumstances, where offenders are convicted of a repeat serious sexual offence, including rape, the law already provides for a minimum sentence of life imprisonment. I should underline that the original offence, when we are talking about the repeat offence category, may not necessarily have been rape but one of a number of serious sexual and violent offences. In addition, in this Bill, and through legislation in the past year, the Government are ensuring that rape offenders sentenced to over four years must spend two-thirds of their sentence in prison, as opposed to being released at the halfway point.
However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, recognised in his Second Reading speech, it is important that we maintain judicial discretion for the court to consider the facts of the case before it and decide on the appropriate sentence. Perhaps I can provide some support on this point —or perhaps the noble Viscount may give me some support. It is important that, given the complex nature of this offence and the wide range of circumstances the court may need to take into account, we maintain that role for judicial discretion. We may both lack the appellation “learned” but I hope that that does not detract from the strength of the point we are making.
Although the sentence lengths for rape have increased, we have a serious problem. We have long recognised that the decline in the number of effective trials for rape and serious sexual offences is a cause for serious concern. I have said that from the Dispatch Box before. Let me take the opportunity to mention briefly some of the wider action we are therefore taking to support rape victims and improve the way rape cases are handled by all criminal justice partners.
We published the End-to-End rape review on 18 June. This sets out our ambitious plans to improve numbers of rape cases being referred by the police, charged by the Crown Prosecution Service and reaching the court. On 21 July, we published the cross-government Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, to help better target perpetrators and support victims of crimes which disproportionately affect women and girls. As to sentencing, the maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment, and it is already the case that the courts impose significant sentences. For the reasons that I have set out, we believe it is proper that the courts retain discretion to ensure that they can impose the appropriate sentence based on the facts of the individual case.
Turning now to Amendment 197 on the abduction, sexual assault and murder of a person, I read it as the noble and learned Lord intended, that it is all three. The amendment would expand the circumstances where a whole-life order would be the starting point to include cases of murder involving the abduction and sexual assault of a single person. While this Government obviously greatly sympathise and understand the concerns that underpin this amendment, I respectfully disagree with what is proposed. All those convicted of murder already receive a mandatory life sentence. For murders involving sexual or sadistic conduct, the starting point for the minimum term in prison is 30 years. Judges are able to increase or decrease a minimum term from this starting point according to the circumstances and relevant aggravating or sometimes mitigating factors. In addition, and as was demonstrated by the sentencing of Wayne Couzens for the horrific abduction, assault and murder of Sarah Everard, there is also an existing discretion to impose a whole- life order if the seriousness of the individual case is exceptionally high.
We are committed to ensuring that serious sexual and violent offenders serve sentences that reflect the severity of their crime. However, I believe that our current sentencing framework, a crucial component of which is judicial discretion, responds correctly at present to these horrendous cases. The courts can, and indeed do, impose extremely robust sentences where appropriate that fully reflect the gravity of this offending and the appalling—often lifelong—harm that it causes.
As I am on the topic of whole-life orders, I will go slightly out of turn chronologically to address the notice given by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby that they oppose Clause 103 standing part of the Bill. Clause 103 makes it possible for people aged 18 to 20 to receive a whole-life order where the crime committed is extremely serious. Clause 103 has to be read together with Clause 102, which expands the range of circumstances where a whole-life order must be the starting point to include the premeditated murder of a child. The current position is that whole-life orders can be imposed only on offenders aged 21 and over. This acknowledges the utmost seriousness of this punishment and its overwhelming effect on an offender’s future. We recognise, however, that there may be some rare cases where it may be appropriate to impose a whole-life order on offenders aged 18 to 20. We propose, therefore, to give judges the discretion to impose a whole-life order on an offender aged 18 or over, but under 21, in those cases.
We have set out an important clarification or criterion for when that sentence would be available. Clause 103(2)(b)(3C) makes it clear that the sentence will be warranted for offenders in the 18 to 20 year-old cohort only where the crime was extremely serious even by the standards of the crimes which would normally attract a whole-life order. We anticipate that this discretion would be exercised rarely. The expectation is still very much that offenders aged under 21 would not receive a whole-life order, but the change will allow judges to impose these sentences for these younger offenders, who are of course still adults, where that is necessary.
Let me turn finally to Amendment 196 which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, set out. As was stated in the other place, we are sympathetic to the objective of this amendment. The unlawful naming of people whose identity is protected by law ought to be appropriately punished. It is a crime which can have serious consequences and cause serious upset, concern and more.
However, with respect, our view is that the amendment does not go far enough. It is limited to breaches of Section 5 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. That Act applies where an allegation of a sexual offence is made, and it imposes an automatic prohibition on publishing any material likely to lead to the identification of the complainant. It also covers alleged victims of human trafficking. This amendment would cover those types of victims, but there are many others whose identity is also legally protected, where the existing penalty for breach would be unaffected.
Sometimes the protection is automatic, for example for victims of female genital mutilation and forced marriage, where the breach offence is the same as that in the 1992 Act, or victims, witnesses and defendants under the age of 18 in youth court proceedings, something which I know the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will be familiar with. In addition, reporting restrictions can be imposed at the discretion of a court, for example in relation to underage participants in a Crown Court trial or vulnerable adult witnesses. Since one reason for imposing these discretionary restrictions may be to protect the subject from injury, one should not assume that the discretionary imposition of restrictions is any less serious than the automatic ones.
Contempt of court may overlap with specific breach offences in circumstances where there is a potential impact on the justice process; that would have a two-year maximum. Therefore, we believe there is a strong case for examining this area of law as a whole, rather than amending legislation piecemeal. My right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General has invited the Law Commission to undertake a review of the law of contempt of court, with particular reference to the interface between that and the criminal law, including the specific breach offences under discussion today. If the Law Commission takes on that task, it would provide a sound basis to look at this area properly and provide some real improvements in the protection the law offers to participants in the criminal justice process.
For the reasons I have set out, I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment and invite the Committee to allow Clause 103 to stand part of the Bill.
I am obliged to everybody who took part in the debate. There was widespread support around the Committee for the increase in the penalties for the naming of an anonymous complainant. I thought the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, was cruel, because it appeared to support it and then talked about the Law Commission. That is years away, so I think we will come back to this on Report. If the Minister would be willing to help me, we could expand the range if he thinks that is appropriate.
In relation to the question of a minimum sentence for rape, as far as the Government are concerned, there is already a minimum sentence of seven years for third Class A drug trafficking offences, a minimum of three years for third domestic burglary and a minimum sentence for offences of threatening with weapons or bladed articles. I am broadly in agreement with the proposition that minimum sentences should be exceptional, but if they are to apply to any case, rape must be the appropriate case.
The third point is that I find it quite out of kilter with what reasonable people would think that, if you abduct somebody, sexually assault them and then murder them, as Wayne Couzens did, the starting point for the court should not be a mandatory whole-life term. Obviously, I will beg leave to withdraw my amendment today, but we will come back to some of these issues later.
Amendment 195 withdrawn.
Amendment 196 not moved.
196A: After Clause 101, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to inform victims and families of the Unduly Lenient Sentencing Scheme
(1) The Criminal Justice Act 1988 is amended as follows.(2) After section 36, insert—“36A Duty to inform victims and families of the Unduly Lenient Sentencing Scheme The Secretary of State must nominate a Government Department (“relevant body”) to inform victims and their families of their rights under the Unduly Lenient Sentencing Scheme, and such information provided must include the type of sentence and the time limit for application, and advise that applications must be made to the Attorney General.””
This is about a completely new topic that we have not addressed before, which is the unduly lenient sentence scheme. The scheme allows the Attorney-General to refer to the Court of Appeal a sentence which he or she regards as being unduly lenient. Only the Attorney-General can do it, there is a 28-day period for referral from the date at which the judge has passed the sentence which is impugned by the unduly lenient sentence application, and it applies only to particular identified serious crimes. From time to time, there is a review of which crimes to which it refers, and the crimes have been changed from time to time—always increased, not reduced. It does not apply to the crimes to which it applies if they are tried in the youth court.
One of the great campaigners for change in relation to this is Tracey Hanson, whose son Josh was brutally stabbed to death in October 2015. The person who committed the murder absconded in a private plane, and many years went by before he was finally arrested and charged, convicted of murder and given a life sentence with a minimum sentence of 26 years. Josh’s mother took the view, completely understandably, that this was an unduly lenient sentence. She knew nothing about the unduly lenient sentence scheme until she was told about it on the 28th day. She got in touch with the Attorney-General’s chambers, who said that it was out of office hours and too late to make an application. It would have had to be the Attorney-General who made it, not Tracy Hanson, so the opportunity was completely lost.
Amendment 196A proposes that the Secretary of State for Justice would nominate a government department —almost certainly the CPS—to inform victims and their families of the type of sentence that has been passed, the time limit for an application to be made by the Attorney-General, and that an application by a victim or their family for an increase in the sentence should be made to the Attorney-General, so you do not end up in a circumstance where the victim finds out only at the very last moment that this right exists.
Amendment 196B would allow in very exceptional circumstances the time limit of 28 days which applies to the ULS scheme to be extended. It should be extended only in exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances should include but not be limited to where the relevant body which is obliged to notify the victim or the victim’s family of the existence of the scheme fails to do so. If there was this limited discretion to extend the 28-day period, that would avoid the feeling of injustice that Josh’s mother and the rest of her family experienced.
My Amendment 196C says that, within 12 months from the date upon which the Bill becomes law, the Secretary of State shall undertake a review of the offences to be included within the scope of the ULS scheme to allow consideration of whether other offences should be added. Amendment 196D seeks to render cases tried in the youth court, where they are for one of the index offences, also subject to the ULS scheme. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on Amendments 196A to 196D, and I thank him for so ably and eloquently presenting the importance of these changes. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has been unexpectedly called away, but, as your Lordships’ House knows, she was the Victims’ Commissioner, and, through her work with victims, she has asked me to say that she is extremely supportive of this group.
I think that most people are aware of the fundamental right in our justice system to appeal a sentence handed down by a judge. Following a sentence hearing, a convicted offender will meet with their lawyer to discuss what comes next and what their rights are with regard to an appeal. This is a fundamental and correct part of our process, and we should hold it in high regard. But what many are not aware of—and this leads me to the necessity of these amendments—is the unduly lenient sentence scheme, which provides the right for anyone to appeal a sentence. This right is of particular importance to the victims of crime and bereaved family members, and the scheme is recognised as a key entitlement in the victims’ code of practice. Operated by the Attorney General’s Office, it provides this fundamental right, which is an important process for victims and bereaved families and can bring comfort and increased confidence in the justice system.
However, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, these rights are not equal in policy or practice, and many victims find themselves learning of their rights by chance, too late or not at all, all of which can have a devastating impact on a victim’s recovery. The scheme, like an offender’s right of appeal, has a time limit of 28 days. This limit provides some assurance for those involved, which we think is important. However, this is where the parity between victim and offender ends, and the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would rectify the problem. While offenders are told of their right to appeal almost immediately following the sentencing, we know that many victims are never informed of their rights at all.
I will briefly tell you about someone who has been denied her rights under this scheme. Claire, a loving mother to a young daughter, was stabbed repeatedly and had her throat slashed by her ex-partner. Thankfully, Claire survived this most horrific of attacks, which was carried out in the presence of her daughter. The offender in the case was arrested and charged, and plead guilty to attempted murder earlier this year. He was handed a life sentence but with a minimum term of just eight years. No justice agency told her of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and it was only while speaking to Tracey Hanson, whom the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to, that she became aware of it. She spoke to the police about it, and they incorrectly told her that she could not appeal due to the offender having received a life sentence.
The problem is the lack of clarity about this scheme, and the lack of responsibility for telling a victim meant that Claire was unable to request that the sentence be appealed within the 28 days. And so the man who slashed her throat her in front of her young daughter may be released in as little as eight years. We must stop failing victims who bravely come forward to bring offenders to justice and whom we repay with this appalling treatment and injustice.
The revised victims’ code of practice, which came into force in April and codifies the rights and entitlements of victims of crime, assigns this responsibility for informing victims to witness care units. While this is useful and important, it fails to realise that many victims and bereaved family members will have no contact at all with witness care units, leaving many still unaware of their rights. So we must ensure that victims and bereaved families are informed in good time after sentencing, because it is absolutely vital that they are able to use their right to appeal if they so want.
These amendments also seek that the Secretary of State conduct a review of eligibility under the scheme, opening up the possibility of including further serious offences, with the aim of delivering this vital right to more people. Gareth Johnson, MP for Dartford, speaking in the other place, talked passionately of the experience of his constituents: the family of Gemma Robinson, who was brutally beaten by her partner, who was the subject of a restraining order following a previous assault against her. Following this, her partner was arrested and charged with Section 18—grievous bodily harm—an offence recognised under this scheme. Tragically, Ms Robinson took her own life prior to his appearance in court and the charge was reduced to Section 20, malicious wounding. This offence, as it stands, is ineligible for the unduly lenient sentence scheme, so Ms Robinson’s family could do nothing as a sentence of just 3.5 years was handed down.
I thank the London victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, and her office for their tireless work in pushing for reform to the unduly lenient sentence scheme. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for tabling these amendments and making the possibility of reform a reality. I urge the Minister to support this amendment, not just for those whom the system has failed but for those whom it can stand to benefit in future—those victims and families who feel that in their case justice was not done.
My Lords, the amendments all refer to the unduly lenient sentence scheme, which is set out in Sections 35 and 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. It allows anyone to ask for certain sentences imposed by the Crown Court to be considered by the law officers where the sentence is felt to be unduly lenient. The law officers—it is ultimately their decision, for reasons I will come back to—may then decide to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. Once it gets there, it is a matter for the Court of Appeal to decide whether the sentence should be increased.
I should underline that it is not a right available to anyone to ask the court to reconsider the sentence. The way the system works is that the request is made to the law officers; their role is to ask the court to increase the sentence. That was set out deliberately and rightly in the scheme. We prosecute in this country in the name of the Crown; we do not have, with very few exceptions, private criminal prosecutions. The instances of the scheme going wrong or people not knowing about it, as we have just heard in the cases of Tracey Hanson and the appalling murder of her son Josh, and the terrible attack on Claire in front of her young daughter, are terrible to hear about. One can only imagine the consequences for those families.
I therefore understand the motivation behind Amendment 196A. It is critical that victims, prosecuting authorities and members of the public are aware of the ULS scheme. I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talk about a lack of clarity. She quite rightly referred to the revised Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, or the victims’ code—I am grateful to her for doing so—which came into force on 1 April this year. It provides victims with the right to be informed about the existence of the scheme and includes, as we heard, a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims about the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service references the scheme in its leaflet entitled Information for Victims. There is provision in place to ensure that victims and their families are informed of the scheme.
It is not the case that it is left to victims or bereaved families to contact the law officers. The Crown Prosecution Service can and does make requests directly to the Attorney-General for cases to be referred to the Court of Appeal in instances where the prosecuting authority considers the sentence to be unduly lenient. Those requests are considered by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General in the way that she considers all such requests. While I understand the motivation behind Amendment 196A, I suggest that it is not required.
Amendment 196B, the noble and learned Lord’s second amendment, would create an open-ended time limit for an application for permission by the Attorney-General in certain cases. Again I understand why that is being proposed, but again I do not agree. Of course I acknowledge that here we are dealing with offenders who have sometimes committed very serious crimes, but it is none the less right—and I suggest it is an important principle in the criminal justice system—that an offender should have certainty about the sentence they are to serve. As the ULS scheme is a rare exception to this rule, it is tightly circumscribed, in particular by requiring an application by the law officers to be made to the Court of Appeal no more than 28 days from the date of sentence. That time limit reflects the importance of finality in sentencing. While we will keep—as we already do, and I will come back to this in a moment—the entire ULS scheme under review, including the 28-day time limit, we have no current plans to remove the certainty of an absolute time limit in any circumstances.
Amendment 196C, the third amendment in this group tabled by the noble and learned Lord, proposes a requirement to review and consult on the scope of the scheme on an annual basis. This requirement would be unduly burdensome but, as I said a moment ago, it is also unnecessary because we keep the scheme under review, which has led to action. This Government have extended the scope of the scheme a number of times since 2017 to include terror-related offences, child sexual abuse and other sex offences, stalking and harassment involving violence, and controlling and coercive behaviour. Of course a case may be made for further offences to be added, and we keep the scheme under review. However, I underline the point that, when setting up the scheme, Parliament intended it to be an exceptional power—the debates make this clear—so any decision to extend the scheme would not be straightforward.
Amendment 196D, the final amendment in this group, suggests that the scheme should apply to offences tried in a youth court, to which it does not currently extend. However, the amendment not only extends the application of the scheme to the youth court but applies it to any offence dealt with in that court, however minor that offence was. Although I am sure it was not the noble and learned Lord’s intention and I am not suggesting it was, the effect of the wording—I appreciate we could draft it out—would be to apply the scheme to sentences for offences in the youth court which could not be referred if they had been committed by an adult. I see him nodding. I ought to point that out because we are discussing the scope of amendment.
A youth court can sentence a child to up to two years’ detention only. For all sentences over two years—as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I think, earlier—a youth case must be passed to the Crown Court. In serious cases, a youth court can decide to send a child to the Crown Court for trial, or a child can be committed to the Crown Court for sentence. Therefore, the ULS scheme already applies to serious youth offences worthy of the greatest scrutiny because those sentences are handed down in the Crown Court where the ULS scheme would be available. That reflects the intention of Parliament when setting up the scheme: that it is reserved for the most serious cases. Therefore, it is not necessary or appropriate to include offences tried in youth courts in the ULS scheme. For those reasons, I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and, through her, to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for their support on these amendments. I also thank the Minister for his careful reply.
Again, very briefly, it is disappointing that, in relation to whether there should be a duty on the Secretary of State to get a government department to be under a duty to tell victims of the possibility of going to the law officers, the Minister’s answer was that the witness care units have a code of practice that tells them they should do that, and it is in a pamphlet produced by the CPS. With respect, I take the noble Lord to be accepting that somebody should tell them. If we really want that to happen, we should impose a duty on the Secretary of State to do that. So I am not sure that we are necessarily at odds on the outcome, but I think that, if one is serious about it, this is the way to do it.
In relation to the time-limit point, the defendant can have his time extended, which brings a degree of uncertainty to victims. In my respectful submission, there should be a similar parity of protection for the victims who wish to question the sentence. Again, there can be limits on that exception, and I am more than happy to entertain any limits that the Minister thinks should be put in—but there must be some means of extending it because of justice.
In relation to the other two, I do not think that I can achieve much by referring to them, except to confirm that my intention in relation to Amendment 196D was to deal only with offences that would otherwise be subject to it in the adult court.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 196A withdrawn.
Amendments 196B to 196D not moved.
Schedule 11 agreed.
Clause 102: Whole life order as starting point for premeditated child murder
Amendment 197 not moved.
Clause 102 agreed.
Clause 103 agreed.
Clause 104: Starting points for murder committed when under 18
Amendments 198 to 201 not moved.
Clause 104 agreed.
Clause 105: Sentences of detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure: review of minimum term
Amendments 202 and 203 not moved.
Clause 105 agreed.
Clause 106 agreed.
Clause 107: Increase in requisite custodial period for certain violent or sexual offenders
Amendment 204 not moved.
205: Clause 107, page 94, line 36, leave out “may be imposed” and insert “could have been imposed (in the case of an offender aged 21 or over) at the time when the actual sentence was imposed”
Member’s explanatory statement
This provides that the longer period before release for sentences within new section 244ZA(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will apply only in relation to offences that were punishable with life imprisonment at the time of sentencing (not offences that are later made so punishable).
My Lords, this is a drafting amendment to Clause 107. Its purpose, as I hope has been explained, is to prevent a prisoner who is serving a sentence for an offence which, at the time it was imposed, did not carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, having their release date changed retrospectively from the half-way to the two-thirds point.
Such an offender should not be made subject to the two-thirds release provisions of Clause 107 should the maximum penalty for their offence be increased to life at a later date, after they were sentenced. Let me give an example that I hope the Committee will find helpful. An offender is sentenced for an offence that currently carries a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. They receive an eight-year determinate sentence. That sentence is not caught by the two-thirds release requirements because the offence does not carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, so the offender is given a half-way release point. Now let us assume that, three years later, the Government increase the maximum penalty for that offence to life imprisonment. Without this amendment, the offender would have their release point retrospectively amended from the half-way to the two-thirds point of the sentence.
That was not the intention of Clause 107, and it is important that we correct this now. With this amendment, Clause 107 is future-proofed appropriately and as intended. It applies to those sentenced for offences that are increased to a life maximum in the future, but applies only to those sentenced after that increase in the maximum sentence becomes law. The amendment will ensure a fair and consistent approach to such offences. For those reasons, I beg to move this amendment.
Amendment 205 agreed.
Amendment 206 not moved.
207: Clause 107, page 95, line 24, leave out “may be imposed” and insert “could have been imposed (in the case of an offender aged 21 or over) at the time when the actual sentence was imposed”
Member’s explanatory statement
This provides that the longer period before release for sentences within new section 244ZA(5) and (6) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will apply only in relation to sexual offences that were punishable with life imprisonment at the time of sentencing (not offences that are later made so punishable).
Amendment 207 agreed.
Clause 107, as amended, agreed.
Clause 108 agreed.
Clause 109: Power to refer high-risk offenders to Parole Board in place of automatic release
208: Clause 109, leave out Clause 109 and insert the following new Clause—
“Power to refer high-risk offenders to High Court for consideration of referral to Parole Board in place of automatic release
(1) The Criminal Justice Act 2003 is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (10).(2) In section 243A (release of prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months), after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) Subsection (2) does not apply if—(a) the prisoner’s case has been referred to the High Court or the Board under section 244ZB, or(b) a notice given to the prisoner under subsection (4) of that section is in force.” (3) In section 244 (general duty to release prisoners), after subsection (1) insert—“(1ZA) Subsection (1) does not apply if—(a) the prisoner’s case has been referred to the High Court or the Board under section 244ZB, or(b) a notice given to the prisoner under subsection (4) of that section is in force.”(4) After section 244 insert—“244ZB Referral of high-risk offenders to High Court in place of automatic release(1) This section applies to a prisoner who—(a) would (but for anything done under this section and ignoring any possibility of release under section 246 or 248) be, or become, entitled to be released on licence under section 243A(2), 244(1) or 244ZA(1), and(b) is (or will be) aged 18 or over on the first day on which the prisoner would be so entitled.(2) For the purposes of this section, the Secretary of State is of the requisite opinion if the Secretary of State believes on reasonable grounds that the prisoner would, if released, pose a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm occasioned by the commission of any of the following offences—(a) murder;(b) specified offences, within the meaning of section 306 of the Sentencing Code.(3) If the Secretary of State is of the requisite opinion, the Secretary of State may refer the prisoner’s case to the High Court.(4) Before referring the prisoner’s case to the High Court, the Secretary of State must notify the prisoner in writing of the Secretary of State’s intention to do so (and the reference may be made only if the notice is in force).(5) A notice given under subsection (4) must take effect before the prisoner becomes entitled as mentioned in subsection (1)(a).(6) A notice given under subsection (4) must explain—(a) the effect of the notice (including its effect under section 243A(2A), 244(1ZA) or 244ZA(3)),(b) why the Secretary of State is of the requisite opinion, and(c) the prisoner’s right to make representations (see subsection (12)).(7) A notice given under subsection (4)—(a) takes effect at whichever is the earlier of—(i) the time when it is received by the prisoner, and(ii) the time when it would ordinarily be received by the prisoner, and(b) remains in force until—(i) the Secretary of State refers the prisoner’s case to the High Court under this section, or(ii) the notice is revoked.(8) The Secretary of State—(a) may revoke a notice given under subsection (4), and(b) must do so if the Secretary of State is no longer of the requisite opinion.(9) If a notice given under subsection (4) is in force and the prisoner would but for the notice have become entitled as mentioned in subsection (1)(a)—(a) the prisoner may apply to the High Court on the ground that the prisoner’s release has been delayed by the notice for longer than is reasonably necessary in order for the Secretary of State to complete the referral of the prisoner’s case to the High Court, and (b) the High Court, if satisfied that that ground is made out, must by order revoke the notice.(10) At any time before the High Court disposes of a reference under this section, the Secretary of State—(a) may rescind the reference, and(b) must do so if the Secretary of State is no longer of the requisite opinion.(11) If the reference is rescinded, the prisoner is no longer to be treated as one whose case has been referred to the High Court under this section (but this does not have the effect of reviving the notice under subsection (4)).(12) The prisoner may make representations to the Secretary of State about the referral, or proposed referral, of the prisoner’s case at any time after being notified under subsection (4) and before the High Court disposes of any ensuing reference under this section.But the Secretary of State is not required to delay the referral of the prisoner’s case in order to give an opportunity for such representations to be made.(13) Upon hearing a reference, the High Court must determine whether the prisoner would, if released, pose a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm occasioned by the commission of an offence under subsection (2) and either—(a) allow the Secretary of State’s reference, or(b) dismiss the Secretary of State’s reference.(14) If the High Court allows the Secretary of State’s reference, the Secretary of State must refer the prisoner’s case to the Parole Board.(15) If the High Court dismisses the Secretary of State’s reference, section 243A(2), 244(1) or 244ZA(1), as applicable, of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 applies to the prisoner.244ZC Proceedings following reference under section 244ZB(1) This section applies to a prisoner whose case has been referred to the Parole Board under section 244ZB.(2) If, in disposing of that reference or any subsequent reference of the prisoner’s case to the Board under this subsection, the Board does not direct the prisoner’s release, it is the duty of the Secretary of State to refer the prisoner’s case to the Board again no later than the first anniversary of the disposal.(3) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to release the prisoner on licence as soon as—(a) the prisoner has served the requisite custodial period, and(b) the Board has directed the release of the prisoner under this section.(4) The Board must not give a direction under subsection (3) in disposing of the reference under section 244ZB unless the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined.(5) The Board must not subsequently give a direction under subsection (3) unless—(a) the Secretary of State has referred the prisoner’s case to the Board under subsection (2), and(b) the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined.(6) For the purposes of this section, the “requisite custodial period” means the period ending with the day on which the prisoner would have become entitled as mentioned in section 244ZB(1)(a).”(5) In section 246(4) (exceptions from power to release early subject to curfew), after paragraph (f) insert— “(fa) the prisoner’s case has been referred to the Board under section 244ZB,(fb) a notice given to the prisoner under subsection (4) of that section is in force,”.(6) In section 255A(2) (duty to consider suitability for automatic release following recall of certain prisoners) (as amended by the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act 2021), for “or a serious terrorism prisoner” substitute “, a serious terrorism prisoner or a prisoner whose case was referred to the Board under section 244ZB”.(7) In section 255C(1) (prisoners whose release after recall is not automatic), for the words from “who” to the end substitute “—(a) whose suitability for automatic release does not have to be considered under section 255A(2), or(b) who is not considered suitable for automatic release.”(8) In section 260(5) (powers and duties of Secretary of State that continue to apply to prisoner removed from prison pending deportation), after “244,” insert “244ZB,”.(9) In section 261(5)(b) (application of release provisions to returning deported prisoner), after “244,” insert “244ZC,”.(10) In section 268(1A) (meaning of “requisite custodial period” in Chapter 6 of Part 12), after paragraph (c) insert—“(ca) in relation to a prisoner whose case has been referred to the Parole Board under section 244ZB, the requisite custodial period for the purposes of section 244ZC;”.(11) In Schedule 1 to the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997—(a) in paragraph 8(2)(a) (provisions relating to release continuing to apply to prisoner transferred from England and Wales to Scotland), for “, 244,” substitute “to”;(b) in paragraph 9(2)(a) (provisions relating to release continuing to apply to prisoner transferred from England and Wales to Northern Ireland), for “, 244,” substitute “to”.(12) In section 128 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (power to alter test for release on licence at direction of Parole Board)—(a) in subsection (2), after paragraph (b) insert—“(bza) a prisoner whose case has been referred to the Parole Board under section 244ZB of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (power to refer to Parole Board in place of automatic release),”;(b) in subsection (3), before paragraph (ab) insert—“(aaa) amend section 244ZC of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (proceedings following reference under section 244ZB of that Act),”.”
My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and the names of other noble Lords. In one way, this amendment is modest, although I regret that it is not modest in length. Indeed, I think it is the longest amendment on the current Marshalled List, winning that dubious honour, by only a short head, over Amendment 259C tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames.
Our amendment leaves intact the legislative intention of Clause 109 to provide a safeguard against the early release of a prisoner serving a determinate sentence who presents a significant risk to members of the public. The amendment’s less modest intention is, quite simply, to preserve the separation of powers—not to give a Secretary of State the power to in effect change and lengthen sentences. It transfers the initiation of the safeguard that is sought from the Executive to the judiciary. It will enable a full hearing of the facts before a prisoner has their case referred to the Parole Board. A Secretary of State who is using this power appropriately has absolutely nothing to fear from this safeguard. It preserves the necessary separation between an elected politician and an individual prisoner who has been sentenced.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and the noble Lord, Lord German, for co-signing the amendment. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, was kind enough to get in touch with me this morning to say that he had a professional engagement elsewhere. I checked that he had not picked up a returned brief in the Virgin Islands from a Member of another place, and I am sure that that is not what happened. I am also particularly pleased that the amendment is tabled with the support of the Sentencing Academy, the Prison Reform Trust and Justice—all highly respected and thoughtful organisations.
At the heart of Clause 109 lies an assessment of dangerousness. The clause is aimed at a small number of prisoners who have been underclassified at the point of sentencing. The scenario cited in the White Paper concerns people who are assessed as presenting a terrorist threat, but who are in prison serving a sentence for a non-terrorism-related offence, and offenders who are deemed to present a significant danger to the public for other reasons but whose offending behaviour and assessment of dangerousness at the point of sentencing did not meet the threshold for a finding of dangerousness. One can think of many examples, but familiar to me because of my interest in terrorism offences is people who have been sentenced for quite mundane crimes but who are radicalised in prison and present a high degree of dangerousness at a time when they otherwise might be released.
These are legitimate concerns. I recognise—and I think we should all recognise—that Clause 109 can offer only an imperfect solution, but one predicated on the Government’s duty to protect the public from dangerous people. The practical danger posed by finding a prisoner dangerous post sentencing is that, when a prisoner genuinely does present a significant danger to the public, the Parole Board will be unable to order their release before the end of their full custodial sentence. The result is that, upon release, these potentially dangerous offenders will be subject to no licence conditions, as many prisoners are. They can be released to NFA—no fixed address—and be lost to the system very quickly. Particularly when the perceived risk is around non-terrorism offending, there will be few available options to manage them in the community. If the authorities move quickly, there are measures for potential terrorist offenders, such as TPIMs, which can be used, although they are very small in number as used at the moment.
However, if there are cases in which the public is better protected by the delayed release of a prisoner, my argument, and the argument of those of us who have signed this amendment, is that this should be a judicial decision and not one at the discretion of the Secretary of State. The practical effect of the Secretary of State exercising this power will be a member of the Executive intervening in the sentence of an individual prisoner to ensure that they will spend their full sentence in custody—perhaps many additional years in prison—unless the Parole Board, which is very well trained in these cases, with a training that is second to none, decides that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should remain in prison. What we have in the clause as drafted is a de facto finding of dangerousness by the Secretary of State, which places on the prisoner the reverse burden to demonstrate that their continuing detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. On making a decision to refer a case to the Parole Board, the default position then is that the prisoner will serve their full sentence in prison—so the operative decision here is the referral to the Parole Board.
Assessments of dangerousness do not lie comfortably with Secretaries of State. In the debates we have had on this Bill—I have done it, and others have done it—we have all cited cases that have been brought to us by members of the public. The Sarah Everard case is an example, which I used earlier. It is a very emotive case. One feels very angry as a citizen about what the man who killed her did. That is so in many other cases. The one that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, cited an hour or so ago fell into the same category. The danger is with such cases that politicians can not only express the anger and ask the Government to do something about it, but that a Secretary of State feels politically driven to do that thing about it. My argument is that these assessments of dangerousness lie properly with the courts. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said in the Second Reading debate:
“I am sure that no one wants to see us go down the road of terms of imprisonment being extended other than by an independent judicial body … the … hallmarks of our system require independence from political interference and decisions on custody being totally in the hands of independent bodies”.—[Official Report, 14/9/2021; col. 1303.]
As drafted, this clause places an enormous degree of discretion in the hands of the Secretary of State.
While the White Paper refers to prisoners who become of significant public concern, there is no such requirement for new information in Clause 109. There is nothing to prevent the Secretary of State simply disagreeing with the decision of the sentencing judge, who has had all the material evidence and reports before him or her. This gives rise to the risk of political pressure, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, also alluded to at Second Reading. Furthermore, the Secretary of State requires only a reasonable belief that there would be a significant risk to the public, a lower bar than the courts are required to use when assessing dangerousness under Section 308 of the Sentencing Code, which necessitates a finding that there is such a risk. In my view that is a proper, fair test.
The current clause offers few procedural safeguards to prisoners who may have to spend several extra years in prison at the instigation of a Secretary of State. There will be no full hearing of the facts before the reference is made. The prisoner is able to make representations to the Secretary of State before the Secretary of State makes a referral to the Parole Board, but that is a very limited opportunity. It is unclear what practical benefit this might provide for the prisoner, especially where the Secretary of State has also made or expressed a view. Even this right is constrained by the Secretary of State not expressly being required to delay a referral to the Parole Board in order to give the prisoner an opportunity to make representations; and prison is a difficult place from which to make representations, whether legal aid is available or not.
It is unclear how and when cases will be brought to the Secretary of State’s attention, by what mechanism and with what level of evidence. Will it be evidence that is transparent and accountable, to give rise to the possibility of judicial review? We have been told nothing about that. Although apparently aimed at a small number of prisoners, the decision to apply this provision to there being a risk of the commission of any specified offence, rather than restricting it to terrorism offences or a shorter list of the most serious offences, means that this provision could be applied to almost any serving prisoner.
I respectfully suggest that there should be little controversy attached to the key purpose of this amendment, which is to transfer to the High Court the final decision as to whether to refer a case to the Parole Board. The Secretary of State will enjoy the additional power to ask the High Court to determine whether automatic release should be halted for any prisoner serving a determinate sentence. The High Court will then carry out an empirical examination on the basis of evidence—lay and expert—just as any sentencing court does, determining whether an offender presents a significant risk of harm to members of the public.
These are difficult decisions and this is a difficult issue, but the public is better protected by these decisions being made in a conventionally open, transparent and independent way: namely, in a courtroom rather than an office in Whitehall. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment not because of its length but because of its importance. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has explained exactly the constitutional significance of this matter. Clause 109 as it stands will create a new power for the Secretary of State for Justice to be able to vary, after the imposition of sentence, the effect of a standard determinate sentence for individual prisoners. This provision would empower the Secretary of State to halt the automatic early release of a prisoner if they believed that, if released, the prisoner would pose a significant risk of serious harm to members of the public by committing either murder or a specified offence. Instead of automatic release, these prisoners would be referred to the Parole Board and kept in prison to serve their full sentence if the Parole Board does not deem them safe to release.
The main purpose of this amendment is not to change the action of having a referral but to change where that decision is laid. It is to ensure that decisions about sentencing are taken by the judiciary and not by the politician. Many of us here are politicians, and most of us would regard ourselves as politicians. In that role, when we have taken certain actions it has often been described as political interference. Political interference is of course what this amendment is trying to put to one side. It is to ensure that there is a fair and appropriate hearing and to ensure the strength of the independence of our judiciary and that it retains its ability to make judgments of the kind envisaged in this amendment.
As it stands, the operative actions on the rules on a determinate sentence are to be taken by the Secretary of State. The purpose of this amendment is therefore to uphold the judicial process while still giving effect to the outcome sought in the Bill as presently drafted. It will ensure that there is no inadvertent or intentional political bias that could result in a prisoner serving longer in prison than was envisaged by the sentencing judge.
The division between the Executive, Parliament and the judiciary is a fundamental pillar of our society and should be upheld. At public expense, we send many Members of this House and the other place around the world to try to strengthen the judiciaries in many developing countries. One of the tenets of that work is that there is a strong and independent judiciary. I think it is important that we make sure that we uphold that principle here in Parliament so that we do not move from it.
We are not given an understanding of the tests which will be applied for the Secretary of State to make a direction for a Parole Board hearing. I do not want to start a discussion again about the definition of words, but what are the reasonable grounds? There is no suggestion that the Secretary of State would have to publish the grounds which guide their decision to refer to the Parole Board. We simply do not know what those grounds might be beyond some indications we get in ministerial Statements.
There is a strong incentive for Ministers to say: “There is a public matter here. I can sense that the public are concerned about an issue.” They will then refer it to the Parole Board and the Parole Board would see no political advantage in not referring it and would accept the case as it was given. There would be a momentum for the Secretary of State when matters arose to just simply say that they would be automatically referred.
The effect of this provision in practice will depend heavily on any gatekeeping process before cases are brought to the Secretary of State’s attention. I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will tell us who will be the gatekeeper and what the gate will be like.
The second concern, which the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has mentioned, is that if prisoners were to be directed by the Parole Board to serve their full term, this would eliminate the ability for such prisoners to transition to community life through the use of licences. The licence provision has been a powerful tool in the rehabilitation process, allowing certain freedoms under supervision. Licences play an important part in transitioning to work and integration into society.
Following due process and limiting arbitrary power are hallmarks of a free society. That is what is at the heart of this amendment, and I ask noble Lords to support it.
My Lords, I support the purpose of this proposed new clause. It is highly desirable that there should be a judicial intervention in the process. The arguments of principle have been articulated by the noble Lords, Lord Carlile and Lord German, and so I will not repeat them, but I will make one or two points about the provision in the Bill and the proposed new clause.
First, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, expressed concern about the circumstances in which the Home Secretary might form the requisite opinion, and set out his reasons; and he was right to. If I may, I will share with the Committee my experience when I was at the Home Office at the back end of the 1980s. I am well aware that the procedure is wholly different, but I have a fear that it will be replicated in this instance.
As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, I was responsible for setting the initial ruling on the tariffs of the life-sentence offenders, which then went to the Home Secretary. What happened in those days was that one got in one’s box, often very late at night, a submission from the department in which it set out a very brief summary of the offence. Associated with that were the comments of the trial judge, if the trial judge was still around, together with the comments of the Lord Chief Justice, and then followed the recommendation of the department—12 years, or whatever. At that point, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary had to form a view; he or she scribbled “12 years” or “14 years” on top of the paper, and it went to the Home Secretary, who in the generality of the cases would accept the advice.
I know that the circumstances have changed profoundly, but the department might very well copy that process in terms of advising the Secretary of State about whether he or she has the requisite opinion. I think that would be profoundly unfair and I therefore very much welcome the judicial intervention contemplated by the proposed new clause, which is right in principle.
I will make three smaller points. First, in the Bill, the Secretary of State has to set out his or her reasons. I hope very much that there will be a requirement that the reasons are fully deployed. What I fear will happen is that the Secretary of State will simply repeat the language of the Act—simply to say that there is a significant risk, and so on. What the prisoner needs to know is the basis on which that judgment is formed, because otherwise the prisoner cannot really address it. So my point to the Minister is that the reasons must be full.
The second point is rather related. I am deaf, but I am wearing my hearing aids and I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, say that the High Court would conduct a full hearing. That was the phrase he used and that is what we need to know: what is the procedure? If the High Court will do only a paper exercise, in my view that is not good enough. It is very important that the procedure before the High Court, before the authority is issued, is a full hearing, or at least has the ability for a full hearing. That means making a submission, a proper argument, and all the rest.
Lastly—I accept that this is a drafting point, but we are in the business of drafting—subsection (13) of the new clause proposed by the noble Lords provides the word “would”: the High Court concludes that there would be a significant risk to the public. I question the word “would”. A word such as “might” would seem to be much better because, if the High Court has asserted that there “would” be a risk, that seems to prejudge the issue as it comes before the Parole Board, which might have some difficulty in concluding that there was no risk. So I acknowledge that it is a drafting point, but I would like the word “might” or something like it to be inserted rather than the word “would”. That said—and I hope I have not been too pedantic—I do think that this is a very important proposal articulated by two of the noble Lords who put their names to it, and I strongly support it.
My Lords, this is a very interesting proposal. I think we all agree, across the House, that where somebody is entitled to automatic release at half or two-thirds of their sentence, if there is proper material from which the conclusion can be reached that the defendant poses a significant danger to the public, then the automatic release date should not apply, and presumably the defendant should then be kept in prison until the end of the nominal sentence. As the Bill is currently drafted—putting it shortly—if there are reasonable grounds for the Secretary of State to believe that the defendant might pose such a risk, the Secretary of State can refer it to the Parole Board to decide.
What the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, wants is that, if the Secretary of State forms that view, he or she should refer the decision to the High Court. The High Court would then make a determination on the substance of the issue: whether the prisoner constitutes a danger. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, called it a drafting point, but as I understand the drafting here, if the High Court forms the view that the prisoner does constitute such a danger, the High Court does not determine whether or not the prisoner is released but refers the matter to the Parole Board. In his opening speech on the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said he believes that the operative decision should be made by the Parole Board, not the High Court.
Necessarily, that ends up with a situation where what the High Court is deciding, one way or another, is whether there are proper grounds for the Secretary of State’s belief that the prisoner may pose a risk. It would be necessary to amend the amendment to say that, because otherwise the operative decision is plainly being taken by the High Court, not the Parole Board—and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, wants the decision to be taken by the Parole Board, which I understand. Once you get to that point—namely. whether there are proper grounds for the Secretary of State’s belief—then it is judicial review, so I am not sure what is added by this proposal.
I do not wish to give away any secrets, but I am sure there are Secretaries of State who, under press or political pressure, would refer such a decision to a body with the power to determine whether or not somebody should be released at the automatic release date. Whether the reference is to the Parole Board or to the High Court, honestly, Secretaries of State will still be guided by political considerations. As far as the Secretary of State is concerned in the notional example given, if they want to make a political point they will refer it to whoever the statute says they should, irrespective of their precise state of knowledge, for political reasons. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, are saying that they will be pushed into it by politics. Well, under his amendment, they will be pushed into referring it to the High Court, and under the Minister’s position they will be pushed into referring it to the Parole Board, which is where the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, wants it to end up anyway.
I am not sure that this amendment achieves much, as it pushes you back into judicial review, which is where we are already. I am sympathetic to the position adopted, but—I put this advisedly—if the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, was willing to put his money where his mouth is, surely the end point should be that the High Court decides. That would provide a much more effective safeguard. This does not quite get there.
My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate. The last few speeches have highlighted the problems with the approach that I was going to set out. In short, where we end up on this amendment is, in effect, the High Court taking the decision and not the Parole Board. I shall come back to the “would” point made by my noble friend Lord Hailsham, which I was going to make as well and is absolutely right.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State first to refer high-risk offenders to the High Court. They could then be referred to the Parole Board only with the court’s approval. That is the structure that we are dealing with. The structure in our clause is that the Secretary of State refers directly to the Parole Board. If referral to the High Court is put in as an intermediate process, it would mean two things. First, the High Court may reject the referral from the Secretary of State if it did not agree that the offender would pose a risk of serious harm. My concern is secondly that, if the High Court did consider that the offender would pose a risk of serious harm, it would roll the pitch in a very serious way for the Parole Board.
I therefore have concerns about both the necessity and the benefit of involving the High Court in this process, but nothing I am going to say is intended to undermine two points on which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord German; first, on the importance of due process and, secondly, that we should limit arbitrary power. I suggest that the court does set out due process and limits arbitrary power.
The important point to bear in mind is that the new power is not a re-sentencing exercise. It is not the Secretary of State extending the detention of the prisoner. I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord as to the important boundary between Secretary of State and judge, between Executive and judiciary. I also want to have a strong and independent judiciary; I believe we do. That principle is not contravened by this clause, because it is the independent Parole Board that will make the final decision as to whether an offender is safe to be released early. The Secretary of State has the power to make a referral, but he or she must have a sound basis for doing so and must give the prisoner notice, which must include the grounds for making the referral and give the prisoner the opportunity to make representations to the Secretary of State.
As for the criteria in play, we will closely monitor and record how the power is used. We will publish a policy which clearly outlines the threshold that must be met and the principles which will underpin the Secretary of State’s decision-making procedure in determining whether to refer a case to the Parole Board.
I do not want to give an incorrect answer to the noble Lord. I know that there are different codes of practice and different sets of procedures in various parts of the Bill. Can I get back to him in writing on that point, so that the Committee knows where it is before Report?
I have said that we will publish the principles which underpin the Secretary of State’s decision. The other point that I make in this regard, which goes to the adequacy of reasons point—it was touched on by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, with his experience—is that judicial review of the Secretary of State’s decision would be available. My noble friend will be aware from the case law as to the relevance of reasons in a case where the decision can be challenged by way of judicial review.
In light of what I have said, I hope that the Committee will appreciate that this mechanism, which we expect to be used only in rare instances, will prevent the automatic release of offenders whose risk becomes apparent only after they have been sentenced.
Let me make one point. I apprehended at certain points in the discussion that there was perhaps a misapprehension, which I should clear up: that one could detain the prisoner beyond the end of the sentence as handed down by the court. We are not talking about that. To be clear, we are talking about the period between the automatic release point and the end of the sentence.
The Secretary of State’s initial decision to refer such a prisoner would therefore be made because concerns were raised by prison and probation officials who have close contact with the prisoner. Those involved in the management of the particular offender and their case, which in most instances would include both prison and probation staff, would be involved in bringing the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State. Prison and community offender managers are experienced in carrying out detailed assessments of the risk posed by offenders and of what can be put in place to manage that risk, both during the custodial period and following release. All that would be part of the assessment. We would also expect the close involvement of MAPPA, so that there is a cross-agency perspective of the risk the offender poses, and risk-management strategies that could be put in place for the time when the prisoner would otherwise be released.
On that basis, and with all respect to the High Court and its judges, I simply do not see how the considerable expertise and wisdom of the High Court could be best put to use here. This is a process for creating a mechanism to respond swiftly and efficiently to the emergence of possible future risk. The addition of the High Court would turn it into a litigation-heavy process, while adding an unnecessary burden on the High Court itself. I simply do not understand how the involvement of a High Court judge at the initial stage would materially increase the safeguards that would already be in place to ensure that this power operates correctly and fairly.
Over and above that, I respectfully endorse the point made by my noble friend Lord Hailsham about the word “would” in subsection (13) of the proposed new clause. The problem here is that the amendment would likely impede the decision-making power of the Parole Board. The board may still opt to release an offender referred under this power, but in practice the High Court’s opinion would be difficult to ignore. The hypothesis here is that the High Court has determined—“determine” is the word used in the first line of subsection (13)—that the offender
“would, if released, pose a significant risk”.
That would be the backdrop to the Parole Board’s assessment. As I said earlier, the High Court would effectively have rolled the pitch for the Parole Board. That is particularly the case if what is envisaged is not some judicial review-type test but what is called a full hearing. The problem there would be that the High Court has determined the point. We have to remember that the authority—or the operative decision, to use the helpful phrase of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer—is the decision of the Parole Board, not of the Secretary of State.
For those reasons, although I understand the impetus behind the amendment, I suggest that, far from making the mechanism better, it would make it significantly worse. I therefore respectfully invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to those who have intervened in this debate. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord German, who has had the courage to climb on to the head of the pin occupied by a number of broad-shouldered and big-elbowed lawyers. He made some very good points in doing so, particularly his straightforward point about the gatekeeping role that we say in this amendment should be carried out by the High Court.
I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. I was around in the other place in the heady days when he was a Minister at the Home Office. I suspect that his experience of the Home Office as he described it was as instructive as such experience would be today. What is required in these cases is a clear exercise of judgment before they reach the Parole Board, fully expressed and in a justiciable way. A lot has been said about the adequacy of reasons in relation to this issue. I think we are all agreed—certainly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the Minister agreed—that we are concerned about the adequacy of reasons.
I am puzzled by what the Minister said about the utility of judicial review in these cases. He knows—all those of us who have been in judicial review cases, and some of us have been judges in them, know—that the test of judicial review is not an ordinary merits test; it is not a test of what is right. The test in judicial review, if you are to win, is: would no reasonable Minister have made this decision? It is quite different from the test on the merits which would be applied by the High Court. I will say a word in a moment in answer to points that have been made about the High Court. I say to those who have suggested that judicial review is an adequate remedy—of course, it is a possible remedy—that it does not fit the bill because it does not mean that there will be a merits test with the adequacy of reasons that has been discussed.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is an absolutely excellent and much-admired advocate, at least by me, but like other great advocates is sometimes wrong, and I venture to suggest that he may have been wrong on this occasion. What this amendment argues for is two quite different stages which are carried out without the intervention of the Executive, save to refer a case. The High Court makes the first assessment. I take what was said by the noble Viscount on drafting as something that needs to be considered, so I will just use the present tense: is there a risk that there is a danger of a particular sort? If so, the case is referred to the Parole Board. That is a decision based on the evidence, on merits, after a proper hearing. It goes to the Parole Board and a quite different assessment is made, which is the one the Parole Board expertly carries out all the time and is about release provisions—whether a person should be released or detained in custody.
It has been an interesting debate and I will reflect on what has been said. I will of course reflect on the comments made by the Minister. I am grateful to him for analysis, which naturally merits further thought, but for the time being I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 208 withdrawn.
Clause 109 agreed.
Clauses 110 to 115 agreed.
House adjourned at 7.08 pm.