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Following a public consultation, part 3 sets out proposed changes to the law on bail, including the strengthening of rules on granting bail in murder cases and a requirement that the decision to grant bail in such cases is made by a Crown court judge. We believe that this strikes the right balance between protection of the public and protection of the rights of those who have not yet been tried. Combined, the measures in part 3 will ensure that the interests and safety of victims, witnesses and the wider public are put first, and that justice can be better in criminal cases.

On part 4 on sentencing, Parliament lays down the maximum sentence for every offence and, in a few instances, provides for minimum sentences as well, but the range of sentences for particular categories of offence is a matter for the discretion of the court. When I first looked at this issue in the mid-1990s, I found two things. First, for similar categories of offence and similar offenders, there were significant variations in sentence practice, unexplained by any factor other than the habits of different courts. Secondly, the guidance available to courts took the form of a digestion of decades of High Court decisions contained in dense textbooks such as David Thomas’s “Current Sentencing Practice”, which although an impressive and distinguished work of scholarship, now runs to five volumes.

Mr. Grieve: That is your fault.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): It is easy to read.

Mr. Straw: I suggest that neither is the case—that work was already pretty substantial when I was in opposition.

The truth is that sentencing practice is complicated and is bound to be so, but I found that, without any other information, neither the public nor sentencers had a clear idea of the penalties for particular types of behaviour. That explains the significant variation in the attitude of the courts to similar offences and similar offenders. My view was that we needed a more explicit process, but one that fully respected the independence and discretion of judges and magistrates at the point of sentence. So, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 established the Sentencing Advisory Panel. That was followed by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which proposed the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

At the end of 2007, Lord Carter’s review of prisons recommended the setting up of a working group to look at the advantages and feasibility of a structured sentencing framework and a permanent sentencing commission for England and Wales. In response, a working group was established under Lord Justice Gage, and I am extremely grateful to him and to his colleagues on that group. Our proposals in this Bill implement the unanimous and majority recommendations of that group.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Under the recently developed arrangements, the Select Committee on Justice has a specific role to play in examining
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proposed sentencing guidelines. How will Parliament be involved in this important process under the arrangements now being proposed?

Mr. Straw: Those arrangements would continue and we are, of course, open to suggestions about how they should be strengthened. I have thought about whether there should be arrangements for Parliament to approve by affirmative order the recommendations or decisions of the sentencing council in this Bill—I think there would be many objections to that. I think that there are ways of strengthening the work of the Justice Committee, and we are certainly ready to consider those.

David Howarth rose—

Mr. Straw: I should like to make a little progress first. The Gage working group rejected the introduction of a United States-style sentencing grid and instead called for the strengthening of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We support that approach. That is why we propose the new council in part 4 of the Bill. One of the purposes of the council has been explained with admirable clarity:

That was the opinion of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, when speaking in November 2007, and I wholly agree with what he said.

Mr. Grieve: The matter that the Secretary of State glosses over is that it is the intention, in setting up this structure, to fetter the ability of judges to exercise their discretion within the parameters laid down by the Sentencing Guidelines Council and by considerations relating to the Government’s number of prison places, for example. That is a profound change, and I must tell him that it will come as a shock to the public, because it has been an established principle for a long time that judges should pass sentences that reflect the period that a person should serve in prison. Are we going to hear anything about that this afternoon or will it simply be brushed under the carpet?

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman has just heard something about it, but he was not listening to the views of his party’s former shadow Justice Secretary. What we are seeking to do is to reach a consensus on what he was proposing.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): It is important that we examine what affects the public and not just what affects lawyers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it ought to be made explicit that a sentencing council’s work should include examining what is effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending? After all, victims want to know, more than anything else, that they will not become victims again in the future. That has not necessarily been a prime focus of the courts system.

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Mr. Straw: Ensuring the effectiveness of sentencing will be an important role of the sentencing council. The majority of the council’s members will be judges or magistrates. It will have a permanent judicial majority, which is one important reassurance. The council will have an enhanced role in collecting data and monitoring the operation and effect of its sentencing guidelines. It will provide independent assessments of the impact of Government proposals on correctional resources. It was that function that Parliament and many others sought so that Parliament would be told when it was proposed to change sentencing practice—

Mr. Grieve: That is not the issue.

Mr. Straw: It is part of the same issue. New proposals, wonderful though they might be, could result in increased demand for prison places, so the next question is whether the money is available to pay for them. That is a sensible way to proceed. The improved collection of data would also meet the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that a better assessment should be made over time of the efficacy of sentences in terms of reoffending rates. The courts will be able to depart from the council’s sentencing guidelines if that would be in the interests of justice. The Bill is deliberately silent on what is meant by the interests of justice because that would be a matter for the courts to determine.

Mr. Garnier: May I come at the problem from a slightly different angle? There are already magistrates who are not able to sentence people to community sentences when that might be appropriate because the lack of resources from the Government has made certain courses unavailable. For example, in Staffordshire, magistrates have been unable to sentence people to particular community sentences for that reason, and I am told that that problem is not peculiar to Staffordshire. The Secretary of State must understand that the resources question attaches not only to custodial sentences but to community sentences. People who should be getting community sentences are, for the wrong reasons, being sent to prison.

Mr. Straw: The numbers are few and far between in our judgment. We increased the money—£40 million—available to the probation service, and not all of that has been spent. However, I am always happy to look at individual cases.

The Opposition need to make up their mind which side they are on when it comes to resources—

Mr. Garnier: It is common sense.

Mr. Straw: Well, that will not write the cheques. In individual departmental areas, the Opposition call for more resources, but overall they call for fewer resources. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman—I look forward to his response later—that I wrote to his predecessor in November to point out that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition kept saying that they would cut spending in the future and would have cut it in the past. Where would the cuts have applied in this Department? Despite three reminders, not a word came back. We look forward to a response today.

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In giving effect to the working group’s recommendations, there is no question whatever of individual sentencing decisions being tied to the availability of prison or probation resources. I am aware that parts of the Bill are complex, and I am anxious to get it right. I aim to table some amendments in Committee and I will also listen closely to the debate today.

I have already referred to representations made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, to which I have sought to respond. Now I want to refer to a matter that was brought to the attention of the House by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) on the advice of Jan Woodward, whose daughter was tragically killed by a drunk driver. In a question to the Prime Minister, the hon. Gentleman drew attention to an anomaly in the law that means that if an offender has committed a serious crime that merits both a prison sentence and a period of disqualification, the latter runs from the point of sentence. The result is that the offender will often have completed a large part of the disqualification before he or she is released from prison. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. In changing the law, which was of decades’ standing, we have sought to ensure that offenders suffer the full punishment for their offences by requiring the courts to extend the period of any driving ban to take account of the time served in prison.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Although I recognise that the measure addresses the specific point of a person who is given a prison sentence and a ban at the same time, it does not address the other situation that might occur. A person might be sentenced, for example, for a burglary during a driving ban and would continue to serve that driving ban while in prison for the burglary.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that and, if we can find a way through it—he acknowledges privately that there is a way through—we will do so. We all understand the point.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: If I may, I want to make some progress, as I have already been on my feet for getting on for 50 minutes.

The Bill also deals with better supervision of knives by the court, which has also been drawn to the attention of the House, and with the issue of profiting from criminal memoirs.

Let me turn finally to the provisions relating to changes to the Data Protection Act 1998. In an age of instantaneous electronic information, it is fundamental that data held on individuals are secure and properly protected. That plainly has not always been the case. At the same time, provided security and scrutiny are guaranteed, better data sharing can greatly work in the interests of the public. It can help to improve opportunities for the most disadvantaged, provide better public services, reduce the burden on businesses, implement policies more effectively and detect fraud.

At present, when a family is bereaved they often have to contact Government Departments and local authority departments many times over to make the necessary
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arrangements, often providing the same information. Responsible data sharing between the relevant agencies would reduce the number of people who would need to be notified of a death, thereby helping to relieve distress at a difficult time.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked Professor Mark Walport and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to conduct an independent review of data protection and data sharing. The review recommended stronger safeguards to protect data and upgraded arrangements for data sharing. It said, in particular, that

So, alongside new powers, clause 152 provides a new scheme for data sharing. Under those powers, an order may be made only in circumstances where sharing the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact it may have on the person affected. The Information Commissioner will provide independent oversight of the process, scrutinising draft orders and laying before Parliament a report of his findings. Every single order will have to be debated and approved by Parliament.

Mr. Grieve: With his characteristic skill, the Secretary of State reduces a seismic change in the relationship between the state and the citizen to something utterly benign. Is it not the case that a great deal of the information that the state acquires from individuals is acquired for specific purposes that Parliament has set down? The Government are proposing to drive a coach and horses through the duty of confidentiality that the state owes to individuals in any case where a quite nebulous concept of public good decides to trump the private right. That is surely not a matter that we should be considering in a portmanteau Bill of this sort. It ought to be contained in separate stand-alone legislation. It has enormous implications for civil liberties and it is not right that the Government should come to the House and ask us to have it as a little add-on to another complex piece of legislation.

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman does nothing for his case with his gross exaggeration of the provisions. The measures follow the Walport-Thomas review, which was rather widely welcomed, as I recall. There was then a period of consultation. The Government published their detailed response, which effectively accepted what the highly independent reviewers had proposed, and that has now found its way into the Bill.

I should also say to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that this Bill is not about choosing between the private individual and the public good, as it were, but about helping private individuals, in many cases, through better data sharing. There are separate provisions for the use of anonymised data for statistical purposes, and the hon. and learned Gentleman needs to look at them.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: In the interests of proper debate, I am about to finish my remarks.

The safeguards in the Bill will be complemented by additional proposals in part 8 to strengthen the auditing and inspection powers of the Information Commissioner. This Government recognise the need to strengthen the
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protection of personal data, and to restore public confidence in its security. It is right to consider the risks of data sharing, but these should not blind us to its potential benefits.

This Government have presided over a decade of very significant institutional and cultural reform to our public services that has seen them become better funded, better performing and much more efficient. To finish where I began, the result is that this is the first Administration since the war to see crime go down consistently, year by year. That is in contrast to the performance in government of the Opposition, when crime doubled during their 18 years in power.

The proposals before the House today are intended to make the coroner and justice systems more effective, responsive and accountable, and to enable them to meet the expectations of victims, witnesses, bereaved families and the wider public. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.36 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Bill’s title suggests that it deals with matters that might command cross-party support. As the Secretary of State will be aware from my earlier interventions, it is widely agreed that the coroners system is in need of reform. Coroners themselves agree with that, as do the Opposition, and we all wish to improve the operation of our justice system. Change is needed, but this Bill fails to address the issues properly. There is certainly much that we wish to support that may strengthen the fight against crime, but some of the Bill’s measures are an offence to justice and the preservation of freedom in this country.

Mr. Heath: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: I will in just a moment.

It beggars belief that the Government should be seeking a draconian transformation in our law to enable them to share private data about individuals. Those data will have been collected in confidence for specific purposes but their ability to be shared right across Government will be sanctioned merely by statutory instruments that will be unamendable in this House. The controversial nature of such a proposal cries out for stand-alone legislation, and I can tell the Secretary of State that we will seek to remove it from the Bill.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way, and I welcome him back to his area of expertise. It is a promotion, I am sure, and I am glad to see him in his place.

Far from being too critical, the hon. and learned Gentleman’s assessment of the effect of the section of the Bill in question was extremely modest. It is the most important part of the Bill, but did he notice that it was the one area on which the Secretary of State did not wish to engage in debate with the House? Does he agree that, whatever the merits of a modest sharing of information, the proposal before us is so broad that it will have a quite staggering effect in undermining the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998?

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