Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I vividly recall the tragic death of Mrs Nelson, and indeed attending her funeral. It fell upon me, some years later, to set up this

23 May 2011 : Column 650

inquiry. The Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) were right to praise the police service in Northern Ireland for all the great work that it does, but the report is a sorry and tragic one. Does the Secretary of State not agree that ultimately, the state simply did not protect Mrs Nelson enough, and that we must learn lessons from that? The acts of omission that occurred were tragic, and they should never, ever occur again.

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I pay tribute to him for his service as Secretary of State. He is absolutely right that the report makes it quite clear that there were omissions, and that if the Northern Ireland Office or the RUC had done certain things, the risk would have been reduced. However, it was also incumbent on Mrs Nelson to accept security advice at the time and ask for security help. I made it clear in my statement that I regret that those omissions meant that the risk was not reduced, but we have to face the fact that under the circumstances, it was impossible to eliminate the risk.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): May I associate myself with both the tone and the content of the Secretary of State’s comments, and with the congratulations that both he and the shadow Secretary of State have given to the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

To follow on from the last question, can the Secretary of State assure us that the current scheme for protecting those who are vulnerable in a similar way to Rosemary Nelson extends both north and south of the border?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question, but we have jurisdiction in Northern Ireland and not in southern Ireland.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his report. Having known Rosemary Nelson when we were both students at Queen’s university, Belfast in the mid-1970s, I find this report very disturbing indeed. In particular, it states that

“we cannot exclude the possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary Nelson”.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that that is tantamount to collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and members of the then security services? Will he provide an assurance to Members of this House and to Rosemary’s family that all efforts will be made to pursue those who were responsible for this terrible murder, and that they will be held accountable in the due process of the law as quickly and expeditiously as possible?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I must repeat what the report said. This 500-page report took six years and cost £46.5 million, and was conducted by three eminent panellists. They conclude:

“There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office, the Army or the Security Service) which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder”.

The report makes no recommendations such as the hon. Lady suggests.

23 May 2011 : Column 651

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): I agree with the content of the Secretary of State’s statement, and I support his tone—it was extremely appropriate that he spoke in such a way. I do not excuse in any way anybody who did a wrong thing, but I served with members of the RUC—they were extremely brave individuals in their commitment to the service, both on and off duty. Does he agree that the PSNI is a very different creature to the policing arrangements of 1999, and that we, and people on both sides of the community, should take comfort in that?

Mr Paterson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I paid full tribute to the RUC in my statement, but we do the RUC no favours by glossing over any failings. The report makes trenchant criticisms of those failings, but my hon. Friend is right that policing is quite different today. It has a much broader base of support, and is responsible to a locally elected Minister and Policing Board. That is why the report makes no specific recommendations.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): This murder took place in my constituency. Today we have the report, which shows no evidence of collusion in relation to that murder. However, in the same area, 18 RUC officers were butchered by the Provisional IRA. We have had Teebane, La Mon and numerous other atrocities in Northern Ireland. We hear on the rumour mill that another inquiry—into Pat Finucane—could be announced. If so, will the Secretary of State also ensure an inquiry into the 18 deaths of RUC officers that occurred at La Mon and into other atrocities, in the interests of equality?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am fully conscious of the tragedies in his constituency and the area where he lives. In June 1997, very shortly before the events dealt with in the report, Constables Johnston and Graham were murdered in Lurgan. On the Finucane inquiry, I made a written statement to the House in November, and there was an extended period of reflection while we took in representations. I shall make an announcement soon.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I respect the Secretary of State’s apology. Clearly the Government, to some degree, failed to protect one of our citizens, so it is only right that they apologise. It was the right decision, and I respect the tenor of his apology. It was a desperate time, and Rosemary Nelson’s murder was a desperate act. However, will he give an assurance that the economic cuts faced by Northern Ireland will have no negative impact on the key persons protection scheme? It has been amended and improved since Rosemary Nelson’s desperate murder, but it is vital that it is maintained.

23 May 2011 : Column 652

Mr Paterson: The KPPS has been replaced by the home protection scheme, which is now administered by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, who works diligently on this and assesses each case with great care. I am surprised that my hon. Friend used the word “cuts”, because this time last year we negotiated with the Treasury an extra £50 million, and since then we have negotiated a further £200 million. The Government have promised to stand by Northern Ireland and do what is necessary to bear down on the current security threat.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the report, and for his measured and balanced statement. Rosemary Nelson’s murder was a brutal and callous act, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues on the release of this sobering report. My thoughts are also with the many other victims and survivors of the troubles in Northern Ireland who fear they will never have justice or even the truth about the circumstances surrounding their own situations. Does he agree that we need an inclusive and comprehensive mechanism to deal with the past and its legacy so that we can build a more stable future for Northern Ireland?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful for the tone of the hon. Lady’s question, which I entirely endorse. One of the other major changes, which is not mentioned in the report, is the establishment of the Historical Enquiries Team, which is looking methodically at the 3,268 cases in which people tragically lost their lives leading up to the agreement. That forms a good basis for working on the terrible losses of the past. She knows that I am considering a range of options and talking to a wide number of people. We will bring forward proposals when we think we can achieve some sort of consensus, but she knows more than anyone how difficult that will be.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): The Secretary of State’s statement identified failures by individuals in the RUC who intimidated and harassed Mrs Nelson or leaked information, and obviously there were failures by some civil servants in not pressing the RUC. Will he ask his permanent secretary to take disciplinary action against any of those civil servants still working in the Northern Ireland Office, and will he confirm whether all the individuals in the RUC whom the panel identified as having committed this harassment or leaked this information have now left the PSNI?

Mr Paterson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and suggest that he read the report, which does not make such recommendations.

23 May 2011 : Column 653

Points of Order

4.38 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wrote to you over the weekend about a number of security breaches in the House, particularly the theft of laptops from right hon. and hon. Members. I had my laptop and iPad, which I had only just worked out how to use, stolen last Thursday. Since inquiring in Norman Shaw North and with other of its residents, I have been told that a number of laptops have been taken from there. Indeed, just this moment my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) told me that her laptop and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) were stolen recently from the courtyard next to your accommodation in Speaker’s House. I have discussed the matter with colleagues, and they have suggested a number of measures. Either we should set up our own neighbourhood watch in Norman Shaw North, or perhaps when you meet President Obama on Wednesday you could ask him to leave some of the 200 security officers he is bringing with him. On a serious note, in our view it is bad practice that in a building such as this, which has protection from the outside, these thefts are ongoing and getting worse. I seek your advice on what we can do about this serious matter, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and for his unsolicited advice, of which, as always, I am appreciative. I commiserate with him on his personal loss, and I extend those commiserations to the hon. Members for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), and other right hon. and hon. Members similarly deprived. It is an extremely serious matter. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we do not discuss security on the Floor of the House. However, it is incumbent on me, which is why I welcome this opportunity, to make it clear that the matter is being investigated—I hope comprehensively—and certainly I can testify to him that it is being investigated as a matter of urgency. When those investigations have been completed, I hope they will prove profitable.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This House makes the law and this House should comply with it. Given some of the remarks that were made during the urgent question—remarks that, on reflection, will probably be seen as incautious—may I have your reassurance that, irrespective of the setting up of the Committee, this House will have sufficient time to discuss the problems associated with injunctions before the summer recess?

Mr Speaker: This is of course a matter for the House itself. I welcome the hon. Lady’s point of order. As she will know—because she was present for the statement—the Attorney-General has announced that a Joint Committee of both Houses is to be set up. There will naturally be a chance to debate the terms of reference of that Joint Committee in due course. I think I made it clear that I strongly deprecate the abuse of parliamentary privilege to flout an order or score a particular point.

On the substance of the right and opportunity of Members of Parliament to express their views on this

23 May 2011 : Column 654

extremely important matter, I am pleased to reassure the hon. Lady and the House that there will be opportunities in the ordinary course of events for Members to express their views on these matters, both in relation to the terms of reference and more widely. There are opportunities to debate matters in Government time, Opposition time and Backbench Business Committee time, and through the mechanism of Adjournment debates. I say to the hon. Lady and the House that there is no injunction, super or otherwise, preventing any right hon. or hon. Member from pursuing those avenues. It is important, however, that we recognise the need to temper our privilege with responsibility.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry to delay the House with this point of order, but it arises from the answer to Question 1 in Education questions today which was given to me by the Secretary of State for Education. We have been waiting for some time for a response to the inquiry report of the previous Select Committee—the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families—on the training of teachers. There has never been a response, even though other inquiry reports that took place under the previous Government have been responded to since the general election. We are used to a system in this House whereby the Department concerned responds line by line to the Select Committee’s recommendations. The Secretary of State told me that this document—“The Importance of Teaching”, the White Paper that came out in November—was an answer, but there is no reference to that fact in this document, and it is not—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I think he has said enough to make it clear to me that this is not a matter on which I can rule; rather, it is—however disagreeable as far as he is concerned—a matter for the Select Committee on Education, should it wish to address the matter further. I think we shall have to leave it there for today.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there any way in which you can discuss with Ministers the quality of replies being sent to Members? I recently wrote to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on an important matter affecting my constituency, and received a reply from the public engagement and recognition unit, rather than from the Minister. It was signed “The correspondence team”—

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Not even Mrs Adams?

Helen Jones: Not even Mrs Adams, no. Another reply, from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, began: “Dear Mr Marsden”. I am very fond of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), but I do not usually take on his correspondence. Is there anything that you can do to ensure that Members get proper replies from Ministers?

Mr Speaker: I am responsible, at least in part, for the timeliness of replies—I do my best to assist Members in that regard—and also for their courtesy. However, so

23 May 2011 : Column 655

far as their quality is concerned, I feel that I must tell the hon. Lady that she holds out for me a set of powers that I do not possess and a range of abilities to which someone of my modest capacities cannot reasonably aspire.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday, you generously granted an urgent question on the Government’s decision not to ban wild animals from circuses. During that discussion, the House was entertained—I think that is the right word—by the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs telling us that such a ban could involve a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 and of the European Union services directive. At the time, I asked the Minister to place that legal advice in the House of Commons Library, but, sadly, it has not yet received it. I have, however, been to the Library myself and looked at the Department’s impact assessment of the regulation of wild animals in travelling circuses. Point No. 81, on page 15, states:

“There are no human rights issues raised by these proposals.”

Following on from that, I found on a comment on a blog entitled “What a circus” which states that

“there are of course valid reasons for exceptions to the rules and restrictions allowed”

under the EU services directive, and that EU

“Commission officials are standing ready to discuss the matter”.

May we have further clarification from Ministers on this matter?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. Some people might think that she is trying to continue the debate that took place on Thursday, although I am not making any such suggestion myself. She did have that urgent question on the subject last week, and, as the House will know, that urgent question was granted by me. I feel sure that there will be other opportunities for her and others to discuss the matter. I would say to her today that this is not a procedural

23 May 2011 : Column 656

matter on which I can rule, but what she has very explicitly said will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench and, very likely, in the relevant departmental office as well.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab) rose—

Mr Speaker: I imagine that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) thinks that our proceedings would be incomplete without a point of order from him.

Thomas Docherty: I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker. Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), will you clarify whether members of the Press Gallery who were following the proceedings this afternoon are covered by the same privilege that we are, when they are reporting the exchanges between hon. Members?

Mr Speaker: The answer to that is yes.

Bill Presented

Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Theresa May, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Kenneth Clarke, Danny Alexander and James Brokenshire, presented a Bill to abolish control orders and make provision for the imposition of terrorism prevention and investigation measures.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 193) with explanatory notes (Bill 193-EN).

23 May 2011 : Column 657

Opposition Day

[16th Allotted Day]


Mr Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister. Just before I call the shadow Secretary of State to move the motion, may I gently point out to him and the Secretary of State that there is a premium on time and that Back Benchers will be heavily restricted? There is no time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I am sure that both right hon. Gentlemen will wish to apply a certain self-denying ordinance.

4.49 pm

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House opposes changing the maximum discount for custodial sentences to up to 50% for those who plead guilty.

Should an offender who commits any offence—grievous bodily harm, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, attempted murder, burglary, mugging, downloading child porn, rape—be given a discount in his or her sentence of up to 50% if they plead guilty at the earliest opportunity? I will deal with the issue in three parts: first, the background to the policy; then I shall move on to its real motivation; thirdly, and finally, I will put my case for why the House should reject that policy.

Sentencing represents the climax of the court process at the point when a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty. Judges or magistrates decide within set guidelines on the most appropriate sentence to hand down, basing their decision on a range of factors, including the severity of the offence. Punishment is a key purpose of sentencing—punishing offenders for the crime they have committed—but it is also about deterrence both for society as a whole and to the individual in question, aiming to prevent the offender from committing another offence.

A key factor not to be underestimated is the protection of the public and the respite provided to communities, but we must also emphasise the importance of rehabilitating offenders. Sentencing provides the opportunity to work with offenders to reduce the chances of their reoffending in the future. It is about focusing on what works to ensure that there is no drift back into a life of crime, but it also provides the opportunity to work with those who have debilitating mental health issues and dependencies on drugs and alcohol.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is suffering from political amnesia, given that his Government presided over the debacle of failing to deport a huge number of foreign prisoners and were also responsible for the deeply unpopular and failed policy of the early release scheme.

Sadiq Khan: I will deal with both those points. Last week, the Justice Front-Bench team were asked how many of these foreign prisoners they had deported during the 12 months that they had been in power, and the answer was—quote of quotes—“about 60”. As to

23 May 2011 : Column 658

the end-of-custody licence, on four occasions between 1979 and 1997, the previous Conservative Government released prisoners early—without the checks and balances that we had, whereby no serious or violent offenders were let out on our watch.

How to balance these different purposes of sentencing is in the judges’ discretion, and plea bargaining is also a key part of our sentencing system. Part of plea bargaining is when an offender’s sentence is reduced on submission of a guilty plea. This is an aspect of our sentencing system that has evolved over many decades, becoming more formalised in recent years.

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman brings up the matter of credits for those who plead guilty and he is right to say that it used to be at the judges’ discretion—until it was made mandatory by the previous Government. The discount of a third, which is given now, is one created by his Government, not by judicial discretion.

Sadiq Khan: I will come on to deal with that point in a moment, but the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said is factually wrong.

Successive Governments have sought to codify the amount of discount one gets off a sentence for pleading guilty, and the first real attempt at codification came with section 48 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This introduced a requirement for the court to take account of a guilty plea. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) may have been alluding to section 144 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which included statutory provision on reductions in sentences for guilty pleas; the Sentencing Council sought to provide structure and judicial direction in this matter.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is it acceptable for a defendant pleading guilty at a timely opportunity—let us say, for an offence of rape—who should have been liable to a tariff of five years, to get a third off, meaning a sentence of 40 months, which would have led, in turn, to the individual being released after 20 months? That would have happened under legislation passed on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch. Indeed, it could have led to an even earlier release if further credit had been given for remorse or co-operation with the police at an interview. Is that acceptable?

Sadiq Khan: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but he will be aware that the maximum discount that can be given on a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity goes up to one third, but if there is overwhelming evidence against the individual, the maximum discount is only 20%. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of that, because I know he still practises in the criminal courts.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): The motion expresses the shadow Minister’s disapproval of the 50% discount, but the Green Paper that was published in December 2010 canvassed the possibility in paragraph 216 on page 63. Here we are at the end of May, and only now are the Opposition raising the matter. Is it possible that this is just opportunism?

Sadiq Khan: The consultation ended on 4 March this year, and we made our concerns clear back in December. I shall deal with the timeline in a moment, because it is relevant to the spinning that has taken place over the past seven days.

23 May 2011 : Column 659

Under our current system, if a guilty plea is entered at the first reasonable opportunity, there is discretion for a sentence to be reduced by up to one third. The later in the process the guilty plea is entered, the smaller the reduction becomes. There is a discount of a quarter if the plea is entered once the trial date is set, and a discount of a tenth when it is entered at the door of the court at the time of the trial. As I said earlier, there is a discount of 20% if the plea is entered at the first opportunity but there is overwhelming evidence against the defendant.

I accept that a sentence discount represents a tension between the delivery of justice and the improving of efficiency in the legal system, but that tension can potentially bring benefits to victims who are spared the trauma of a long period in court. Up until now, the system has always sought certainty that the right balance is being struck. If the sentence reduction is too great, it threatens to undermine the principles of sentencing and public confidence in the system. Worse still, it may mean that justice is not being served.

The Government’s Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle” proposed a maximum discount of 50% for those who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity. No. 10 and the Lord Chancellor would like us to believe that they are in full consultation mode and are simply “flying a kite” about changing the current practice. I accept that there has been consultation on the proposal, but the Lord Chancellor’s decision to accept a 23% cut in his budget has led to a fixation with reducing the prison population. That fixation has overridden all other objectives, and shows just how out of touch the Government have become. They want to reduce prison numbers not because crime is being reduced or because fewer people need to be in jail, but quite simply because of money.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): In the light of his accusation that the only motivation for the Government’s offer of consultation with options is reducing the prison population, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that between 2007 and 2010, his party’s Government released early the equivalent of the entire current prison population of 80,000?

Sadiq Khan: I know that the hon. Gentleman is not misleading the House intentionally or recklessly, but, as he knows, the maximum time off on end-of-custody licences was 18 days. We are not talking about an additional 17%.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Is the right hon. Gentleman honestly telling the House that under the tenure of the last Government there was not a serious and profound problem of overcrowding in our prisons?

Sadiq Khan: I remember that the manifesto on which the hon. Lady stood for election and won her seat stated that the Conservatives would provide the same number of prison places we would.

The Department’s impact assessment gives the game away. The sentence discount plan provides the Lord Chancellor with the lion’s share of his reduction in prison places. The impact assessment shows that £3,400 of the overall savings from the 6,000 fewer prison places that will be needed as a result of the sentencing package will come from the planned increase in the maximum

23 May 2011 : Column 660

available discount to 50%. I accept that that equates to £130 million a year, but it demonstrates that the Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): If the right hon. Gentleman expects the House to take his arguments seriously, perhaps he will explain why he and his party failed to make any submission to that Green Paper.

Sadiq Khan: Of all the points that have been made, that is the silliest. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that it is silly to expect a Member to respond to every consultation document when he has other opportunities to make his views known, such as asking questions of the Justice Secretary on the Floor of the House, speaking to the Justice Secretary, and speaking to the Opposition.

Richard Graham: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I ask whether I correctly heard what the right hon. Gentleman said? Did he accuse me of misleading the House in the figures I mentioned in my question to him?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): As I recall, the right hon. Gentleman said quite the reverse: he said you were not misleading the House intentionally.

Richard Graham: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Did the right hon. Gentleman therefore accept that what I said was factually accurate?

Mr Deputy Speaker: To save a bit of time, let me say that it might be more appropriate for that question to be asked in an intervention on the shadow Secretary of State.

Sadiq Khan: I am afraid I have no idea what that point of order was about, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Richard Graham rose

Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman will have a fourth chance to intervene in a while.

Ben Gummer rose—

Sadiq Khan: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Ben Gummer: May I help the right hon. Gentleman? I do not like to disagree with my colleagues, but he did make a submission on the Government’s proposals. At the end of last year he was asked by The Guardian whether he agreed with anything the Justice Secretary had said on criminal justice, and his answer was no.

Sadiq Khan: I am happy to set out a timeline of when I have and when I have not agreed with the Lord Chancellor. He and I often comment on the fact that we agree on many issues, but I have said all along that I disagree with this particular proposal. I will discuss the timelines shortly, however.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Is not another reason for the dramatic overcrowding of our prisons that the current Government inherited the fact that

23 May 2011 : Column 661

more than 50% of the prisoners given indeterminate sentences—6,000 in total—served longer than the sentence they were given? Is this not another example, at the other end of the sentencing spectrum from the early release scheme, of the chaos we inherited with regard to sentencing policy?

Sadiq Khan: On the one hand we are criticised for prisoners who have been properly checked being released on licence 18 days before their sentence is completed, but on the other it is suggested that people who have been proved to be a danger to the public and are serving indeterminate sentences should be released prematurely to save money, rather than there being proper checks and balances. At present, IPPs—imprisonment for public protection sentences—are imposed on all prisoners convicted of rape offences and all sentences of four years and more. Under the new proposals, the Government are considering changing the regime so that only those sentenced to 10 years or more will receive an IPP sentence. That will be a genuine source of concern to the public throughout the country.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab) rose

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con) rose

Sadiq Khan: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall give way to a Member on the Opposition Benches.

Steve McCabe: Why do we not arrange for all the interventions planted by the Government Whips to be read out at once, so that my right hon. Friend can get on with his speech and we can get on with the debate?

Sadiq Khan: When I was a Whip, the quality of interventions was a lot better than it is today.

Mr Burrowes: I want to help the shadow Justice Secretary, so I should not be accused of pure opportunism. Does he think it is acceptable that a convicted rapist with a third off their sentence for plea could be released after 20 months: yes or no?

Sadiq Khan: I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he will support our motion when it is put to the vote at 7.15 pm.

Mr Burrowes rose—

Sadiq Khan: I have been generous in giving way. The hon. Gentleman can have a third bite at the cherry after I have made some progress.

Charlie Elphicke rose—

Sadiq Khan: Let me make some progress.

Richard Graham rose

Sadiq Khan: I promise to give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have made some progress.

The consultation period ended on 4 March, so there is no more time for the public to have their say, and it appears that experts and stakeholders who voiced their

23 May 2011 : Column 662

opposition have been ignored. Last Tuesday morning, the Cabinet Sub-Committee signed off the policy, and last Tuesday afternoon my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) asked in Justice questions how giving half off a sentence would help to protect the public. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) replied. He did not say the proposal was still under consultation, or that it was being considered only for non-violent, non-serious or non-sexual offences. He said:

“I would have thought that a moment’s reflection would make that clear. Let us suppose that someone who is accused of rape co-operates with the authorities…That is one example where there is a definitive benefit”.—[Official Report, 17 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 140.]

By the bye, when the Lord Chancellor seeks to blame others for trying to introduce “sexual excitement” into the debate, he should look not at journalists or Labour Members, but at his Front-Bench team.

If there was any doubt that this Government had already made up their mind about this policy, the Lord Chancellor’s answer to my question in last Tuesday’s Justice questions made the position clear. When I pleaded with him to reconsider this proposal, praying in aid not just the Labour party, but judges, victims’ groups and the Government’s own victims commissioner, he said that it would “survive” the consultation.

Sajid Javid rose

Sadiq Khan: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has not spoken yet.

Sajid Javid: The right hon. Gentleman is sharing with us his concerns for victims of crime, but his party introduced the Human Rights Act 1998. Just last year alone, more than 200 foreign criminals, including many convicted killers, could not be deported as a direct result of that Act, so would he like to take this opportunity to apologise to the House for putting the rights of criminals before those of victims?

Sadiq Khan: I am delivering a speech in two weeks on the human rights law and I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of it, detailing all the victims who have benefited from the Human Rights Act over the past few years.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the answer given to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in last week’s questions. What would be the Opposition’s attitude had the example of fraud been given? Would we have had all this “bandwaggoning” then?

Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman, who knows this area very well, will know that the proposals, which we know have been approved, are for all crimes. If they had been for classes of crime, we could have had a debate about whether or not crime A was in the right category, but this discount of a maximum of 50% is to apply in respect of all crimes. He is right to raise the issue of a broad-brush approach being taken to save money.

Richard Graham: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

23 May 2011 : Column 663

Sadiq Khan: I will, because the hon. Gentleman has been trying to get in.

Richard Graham: The shadow Justice Secretary said earlier that he had not quite followed my point, so I will give him a second chance to answer it. The proposal I put to him was that between 2007 and 2010 his party released more than 80,000 prisoners early, 16,000 of whom had committed violent crimes—that figure of more than 80,000 is equivalent to the entire current prison population. So before he and his party get too pious about their track record, will he confirm whether these facts are true or not?

Sadiq Khan: It is a fact that the previous Government released prisoners 18 days early once they had been through the hoops. However, violent criminals, people on the sexual offenders list and people accused of terrorist offences were not released early, and these people were released a maximum of 18 days early and on licence. The hon. Gentleman will also know that on four occasions during the previous Conservative Government prisoners were released early without the checks and balances that we conducted.

Richard Graham rose—

Sadiq Khan: I think that I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman’s point on more than one occasion and I want to make some progress.

We also know that the Government had originally scheduled tomorrow—the last day before recess—to be the day on which they published their response to the Green Paper. So when the Prime Minister says at Prime Minister’s questions that this is only a consultation, when No. 10 says that the Ministry of Justice is merely “flying a kite” and when we are told that this is not an across the board reduction in sentence, we know that that is not the case.

I wish to spend some time talking about why Labour Members believe that the whole House should support our motion and reject this policy. The Green Paper, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate, in last week’s Justice questions, and the Lord Chancellor, on BBC’s “Question Time”, have all said that the maximum 50% discount would apply to all crimes. So it will apply to grievous bodily harm, attempted murder, rape, burglary, muggings, death by dangerous driving and all the other crimes that we can all think of that have such a miserable impact on communities up and down the country. Let us consider the impact of the proposals on some sentences. A convicted rape offender could be back on the streets after only 15 months. Someone convicted of causing actual bodily harm where the assault is premeditated and it results in relatively serious injury could end up serving three months in prison. Criminals convicted of burglary when the occupier is at home could serve as little as 10 weeks in prison. In the case of very serious crimes, where sentences are longer, the additional 17% rise in the discount might have the greatest impact. In such circumstances, an additional 17% translates into reductions of years.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is talking about figures, but does he accept, as regards the figures already mentioned by

23 May 2011 : Column 664

Government Members—the 80,000 prisoners and the 16,000 prisoners who committed violent crimes who were released early under the Labour Government over 13 years—that 181 of those released early committed violent offences including three murders and six sexual offences? Does he accept those figures?

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) commented on the efficiency of the Conservative Whips and I can see that the Lord Chancellor’s Parliamentary Private Secretary is also very effective. I have not seen the note that the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) has been passed by the Lord Chancellor’s PPS, but if he will discuss it with me afterwards I can check whether it is accurate.

It is not just us who think this policy is wrong. The Sentencing Council, the body charged with offering expert advice on such issues, states that

“in other common law jurisdictions the largest discount on offer is around a third, with some offering up to 35%. To date no jurisdictions have been identified where the discount is significantly higher than this”.

It goes on to point out:

“The Council has not identified any research to date that indicates that an increase in the level of the discount would be likely to increase the volume of early guilty pleas.”

The only evidence we have seen shows how much money will be saved, and cost is once again being put above good justice.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): May I ask the shadow Secretary of State to clarify? Does he agree with the leader of his party, who said:

“Tougher prison sentences aren’t always the answer”?

When are they appropriate and when are they not? What does the leader of his party mean?

Sadiq Khan: I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what the leader of my party believes. He thinks that it is inappropriate and offensive both to victims and our criminal justice system if all offenders are given a discount of up to 50% for pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity.

Further evidence that the Government are out of touch is provided by their Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, Louise Casey, who has argued:

“A discount of 50% offends many victims, underplays the harm that may have been caused…and can seem to be placing administrative efficiency over justice.”

Campaign groups such as Justice and the Criminal Justice Alliance also oppose the policy. The judiciary have also been critical. Lord Justice Thomas, vice-president of the Queen’s bench division, and Lord Justice Goldring, senior presiding judge for England and Wales, have said that halving sentences because of guilty pleas will fail to reflect the seriousness of offences.

The Government’s policy on law and order is a mess. They just do not get it. Before the election, the Prime Minister made promise after promise to get elected. He promised to protect front-line services and he is now cutting 14,000 prison and probation staff. His Government are also cutting front-line police, which we will debate later this evening, and 23 specialist domestic violence courts are being closed. They promised a prison sentence

23 May 2011 : Column 665

for anyone caught in possession of a knife—that promise was broken. They promised honesty in sentencing and that they would introduce minimum and maximum sentences—those promises were broken.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What did the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader mean when he said:

“When Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime”?

Has that gone by the board?

Sadiq Khan: If only the Justice Secretary was investing in alternatives to short sentences and in some of the important, aggressive and intensive work that is required instead of cutting some of those services around the country. I hasten to add that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has voted for some of those cuts. When the Justice Secretary talks about rehabilitation and community sentences—real alternatives—he should invest in them, too.

Charlie Elphicke: The shadow Secretary of State is talking tough on sentencing, but

“playing tough in order not to look soft makes it harder to focus on what is effective.”

Surely rehabilitation and education are the things that this House should be debating, not plea bargaining, as they will make the difference.

Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the importance of dealing with some of the real problems of those who commit offences and are found guilty, and I am all in favour of aggressive intervention within prison—and outside it for non-violent offenders. The problem is that the Justice Secretary, by accepting the 20% cut to his budget, is taking away some of the resources and skills that are required, especially with possibly 14,000 probation and prison staff losing their jobs. That expertise, skill and experience is being lost, arguably, when it is most required.

I have said on many occasions—this has been prayed against me this afternoon—at the Dispatch Box, to the Justice Secretary directly and in the media that I am happy to work with the Government and the Lord Chancellor to make changes in our criminal justice system to help reduce reoffending, cut crime and make our communities safer, based on what works where evidence shows its effectiveness, but nothing in the plans will reduce reoffending or do justice. They are a recipe for disaster and they confirm how out of touch the Government are with the real world.

I do not want this debate to descend into one about whether people are tough on crime or soft on crime. It is about what works and what is the right thing to do. It is about understanding how our criminal justice system has the full confidence of victims, the families of victims, the judiciary and the general public, all of whom are integral to its effectiveness. It is about understanding the value of justice and about willingness to pay the right price for it. I ask colleagues on both sides of the Chamber to think very carefully about this when voting on the motion.

23 May 2011 : Column 666

5.16 pm

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“deplores the previous Government’s failure to tackle the national scandal of reoffending and its mismanagement of the justice system; notes that discounts for guilty pleas have been an established principle of common law for decades, and that they can speed up justice and spare victims and witnesses the ordeal of waiting and preparing to give evidence at trial; and welcomes the Government’s intention to overhaul sentencing to deliver more effective punishment for offenders and increased reparation for victims and to reform offenders to cut crime.”

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s coming to the Dispatch Box and moving the motion, which took me rather by surprise when it was tabled at the last minute last week. At one point, he gave a clear exposition of the opinions of the Leader of the Opposition on the encouragement that is given for an early guilty plea. No doubt we will discover at some stage how many days ago the Leader of the Opposition came to that conclusion, but I think it is rather more the right hon. Gentleman’s than his leader’s.

The shadow Secretary of State also, quite fairly sometimes when giving way to interventions, said that there were substantial parts of the proposed reforms with which he was in broad agreement with the Government, and he offered to work with my colleagues and me in that regard. However, he tried to get away from that by saying that he would support me if it were not for the reductions in public expenditure in my Department to which I am submitting. I regard it as being in the national interest to make reductions in public expenditure in most Departments. If the right hon. Gentleman believes that my Department should be totally exempt from any reductions in public expenditure at all, perhaps he would indicate in which other part of the public service he would volunteer reductions. With respect—I do not normally tender such advice—the weakness of the Labour party is that it does not have the first idea when it is going to stop denying the need for any reductions in public expenditure. There are some perfectly reasonable reductions to be made in the criminal justice system, but that is not the principle motive for reform. The principle motive is to make the criminal justice system better and to tackle some of the problems we have inherited, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have touched on.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Clarke: The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was very generous in giving way and we all appreciated that, but there will be no Back-Bench speeches if I give way too frequently. I will give way in a second.

Let me get one thing out of the way first. I have always believed, along with every sensible person, that Britain needs a criminal justice system that is effective in properly punishing offenders for their wrongdoing and in protecting the public from further crime. When I took office as Justice Secretary it seemed to me perfectly obvious that that had to be the first priority for all my policies. That is self-obvious; it is a platitude. The Government’s policy, and my first duty, is to punish

23 May 2011 : Column 667

crime and have an effective system for protecting the public from further crime. The problem that I face, which causes the reforms, is the fact that I inherited a system that was not effective in protecting against offenders’ committing further crime or even in punishing offenders. So that is at the forefront of where we are going.

Without going over all the exchanges that we have just had, let me explain briefly what we have taken over, which causes the need for the proposed reform. Our prisons are pretty nasty, unpleasant places, far from the holiday camps they are sometimes made out to be. The people in most of them pass their days in a state of enforced idleness, quite a few of them making some tougher friends than they have had in the past, and not facing up to what they have done. That is not what I think of as a satisfactory and effective punishment. But a bigger scandal still is our system’s failure to protect the public from future crime committed by offenders after completion of their time inside. Reoffending rates in this country, as we have taken over the system now, are straightforwardly dreadful.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Secretary of State has made much of the fact that short-term prison sentences lead to higher rates of reoffending than longer-term prison sentences. Given that his proposals now are to give people a 50% discount on their original sentence, plus they will be let out 50% of the way through their time in prison, and given that short sentences do not work, as he says, why is he so determined to make long prison sentences into short prison sentences?

Mr Clarke: The point that I make is not the one that hair-splits the variations between different forms of sentence. All our reoffending rates are very bad. I have no intention of addressing the sentencing tariffs for any offence in this country. I have no proposals for reducing the overall powers of the courts to deal with any crime. What we are talking about is the difference between someone who pleads guilty, particularly at an early stage, and someone who makes the witnesses and the victims go through the crime. That is what I will address.

Ever since I published the proposals five months ago, although we have not faced any clear alternatives or views from the Opposition, I faced a debate about my apparent desire to let prisoners out and reduce the sentences. I have no such desire; nor do I use statistics to illustrate the need for that. What I am talking about—

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr Clarke: Let me continue briefly. I want to get on to the quite small proposal in our overall reforms that this debate and the publicity of the past few days have focused on. Let me explain what the reoffending problem is, because that is at the core of the Government’s policy and my proposals.

Within a year of leaving jail, half of Her Majesty’s guests will have been reconvicted of further offences. For adults released from short-term sentences the figure is 60%. For young offenders leaving custody it rises to three-quarters. The same people cycle around the system endlessly, costing endless suffering to victims and, for those released from short sentences alone, costing between £7 billion and £10 billion a year to society. That is the

23 May 2011 : Column 668

key part of the penal system that is not working. I offer this analysis because it throws into sharp relief the record of the Labour politicians who are now criticising bits of our proposed reforms. What I have just described is part of the legacy of the previous Government.

Dr Lewis: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr Clarke: Let me finish describing the legacy of the previous Government, then we will move to the more constructive matter of my reforms and I will give way to my hon. Friend.

I have not forgotten, and I am sure the public have not forgotten either, what 13 years of Labour government was like in this field, despite the attempts of the right hon. Member for Tooting to skate over some of it. We had 13 years of eye-catching initiatives, schemes, meddling and prescription that made a complete Horlicks of the criminal justice system. We had more than 20 Criminal Justice Acts. Thousands of new criminal offences were created. Senior judges complained that

“Hell is a fair description of the problem of statutory interpretation”

when talking of this stream of legislation. We had a 39% increase in the number of prisoners in our jails—it was not planned and it was not policy—with the cost to taxpayers rising by two thirds in real terms.

And what for? That was meant to be the embodiment of the policy of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—an attempt to give reality to an admittedly rather catchy slogan. What we got was a sentencing policy so chaotic and badly managed that, as my hon. Friends quite rightly keep emphasising, the previous Government had to let out early 80,000 criminals, who promptly went on to commit more than 1,000 crimes, including alleged murders and one rape. We had a system under which more than 1,000 foreign national offenders were released without being considered for deportation—the total number of foreign prisoners in our jails doubled during Labour’s period in office. We had a system under which offenders serving community sentences in practice usually completed only one or two days of unpaid work each week. Above all, as I keep emphasising, there was the national scandal throughout Labour’s period in office—not a new problem—that the exorbitantly high reoffending rates went completely ignored.

Why was that? A recent quote from the right hon. Member for Tooting is worth repeating, as he gave an extremely good description of what went wrong and what was driving Labour’s policy. Speaking to the Fabian Society about New Labour’s record on this subject just two months ago, he said that

“playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective”.

He gets a murmur of approval from the Conservative Back Benches, and certainly from those of us who had to witness the effect of that policy.

Let me move on to our proposed reforms, including the one to which the Opposition’s motion refers. What are the problems that we are now tackling and that our large package of reforms seeks to address? First, criminal trials are needlessly long, drawn out and expensive. The court experience is often deeply unpleasant and almost always uncomfortable for victims, witnesses, jurors and

23 May 2011 : Column 669

most people who have anything to do with it. As I have said, at least half of all crimes are committed by people who have already been through the criminal justice system. More than one in 10 adults in prison have never been in paid employment, almost a fifth of prisoners who have used heroin did so for the first time while in prison, and one in five appears to have mental health problems. If we wish to take this subject seriously and really want to protect society and the victims of crime, we must recognise that that is the context of today’s debate.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way at last. He is talking about practical studies on how to deal with prisoners with mental health problems, such as the work done by the Bradley review. I will go along with him on those issues, but I do not understand what studies he has done on the precise issue that we are debating today and on the effectiveness of early guilty pleas. It is clear that already two thirds of Crown court cases that result in a conviction involve people who have pleaded guilty. More than 10,000 of those cases in 2008-09 were at the door of the court but could easily have been dealt with in a magistrates court. Why is he not acting to ensure that those guilty pleas happen in a magistrates court, rather than having this widespread policy that will lead to violent criminals being let off?

Mr Clarke: On Lord Bradley’s report and the problem of mentally ill people in prison, it seems plain from the hon. Lady’s intervention that she agrees with me. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I are working on ways to divert people from prisons, in proper cases and with proper protection of the public, to places where they can be more sensibly and suitably treated. In that respect the hon. Lady and I are in total rapport.

What I am suggesting about the system of guilty pleas, and the reason I have described the unpleasantness of going to court for most people who unwillingly go there as victims and witnesses, is that although most cases wind up with guilty pleas, more should do so and far too many such pleas are made ages after the event and at the last possible moment. I shall explain in a moment how we are addressing that problem, because the long-standing system we have at the moment is not working well enough.

Dr Julian Lewis: Will my right hon. and learned Friend allow me?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: Let me just take our proposal on early guilty pleas. Let me get into that. I am sorry to be unkind to my hon. Friend, but I have to bear in mind the people trying to be called, otherwise there will be no BackBenchers’ debate, and as someone who was until recently a Back Bencher for many years, I always used to find it irritating when we had a short Opposition day debate.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): You always got called early.

23 May 2011 : Column 670

Mr Clarke: An advantage the hon. Gentleman will have one day.

From the proposals of the right hon. Member for Tooting, I cannot quite see any difference in principle between the two sides of the debate. It is, and always has been, a well recognised and fundamental practice in this country that those who lie their way through a trial and are ultimately found guilty should face a greater punishment than those who own up early, take responsibility for their crime and commit to making amends. That has taken place for at least the past 40 years. I suspect that anybody here who does enough research will find that, for the past century, people who fought it out and braved it out got a longer sentence than those who put their hands up early and pleaded guilty.

What is the purpose of that practice? The public are sometimes startled when they hear that that is the practice, though it always—always—has been in the courts of this country. The purpose is, as we have already stressed, because of the situation of victims and witnesses, above all. No one should underestimate the relief that is felt by anybody who is a victim of crime and has complained to the police about it when they are told that the offender is going to admit to it, and that they, the victim, are not going to be put through an ordeal in court. The witnesses feel equally relieved. It is far, far worse when someone fights on, because often the victim finds that on public evidence and in a court of law they are being accused of lying, of bad behaviour, of promiscuity or of whatever it is that the defendant is trying to run. That is why the justice system of this country has always included the practice. It also saves an awful lot of police time, an awful lot of Crown Prosecution Service costs and everything else.

Dr Lewis: On that point, will my right hon. and learned Friend allow me?

Mr Clarke: I will give way on that point, but I just say finally that it is a pity practising lawyers have always referred to the practice as the guilty plea “discount”, because that is not actually the best way of explaining it to a sensible member of the public. I give way to my hon. Friend at last.

Dr Lewis: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his generosity in giving way. He talks about what victims feel, and I always thought that victims felt very unhappy with the previous Government’s policy of letting many criminals out automatically halfway through their sentences. When in opposition we always used to talk about honesty in sentencing, so are we going to change that policy, or are people going to be let out automatically halfway through a sentence which has already been reduced by half as a result of the new measure under discussion?

Mr Clarke: Halfway through the sentence, people are released on licence, therefore they are liable to recall. If they reoffend, they are brought back; they are not free of their conviction for some time. We are going to address not just release on licence or supervision on licence, but what more can be done once people are out of immediate custody in order to increase the chances of their not reoffending. That is where we get into payment-by-results schemes, and that is why I already

23 May 2011 : Column 671

have a contract at Peterborough prison, which I inherited, and a new one at Doncaster prison, whereby we will pay more to providers who stop such people coming back when they leave prison. That is not for today, but it is a key part of our reforms, and I do not think that any Member opposes it.

Let me move on to what we are debating. We have the decades-long principle of offering for an early plea a reduction of up to one third on the sentence that a judge hands down. The previous Government made that clearer, because they calmly allowed the Sentencing Guidelines Council to spell out the one third, and it was actually made more binding on the courts in 2009. If anybody in the Opposition is against in principle the idea of what I say is unfortunately called a “discount” for a plea, why have they not mentioned it for the past 13 years? Why was the previous Government’s policy based on that principle and on the arguments that I have just raised? Why are we readdressing this?

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab) rose

Mr Clarke: Ah, here we are—somebody who supports the idea. The trouble is that if a discount is not given and the man gets to the court door and finds that there is not much coming off his sentence any more, he might as well instruct his lawyer to have a go and see whether the defence can shake the story. That is why no lawyer has ever objected to the discount for a guilty plea.

Emma Reynolds: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well that there is a big difference between a 30% discount and a 50% discount. Will he turn his mind to the evidence that has been suggested by the Sentencing Council, which says that the 50% plea discount will not bring forward any more criminals to plead guilty? What does he say to that?

Mr Clarke: I do not agree with that. It is not evidence; there are a variety of opinions. However, it is a perfectly good question. We have got down to the fact—I can be precise—that the difference appears to be 17%. That is what we are arguing about. I do not think that anybody in this House has any principled difference whatever on the policy.

The present system is not working effectively, so we have gone out to consultation on proposals that might improve the encouragement offered to people to plead guilty earlier. In over 10,000 cases listed, the trial stops right at the courtroom door; judge, jury, victims, police officers, probation officers are all amassed for a full trial, and then at the last minute the person pleads guilty. Those long delays are wrong, not only because of the cost to the police and the waste of time of everybody attending for any purpose connected with the trial, but because victims and serious witnesses have to endure the uncertainty of it all as they prepare for the ordeal of reliving the trauma of what are sometimes very harrowing experiences.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Tooting will forgive me for saying that saving a bit of cost to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the public purse might be advantageous, although I know that it was not new Labour’s approach. If we could get more of those

23 May 2011 : Column 672

involved in these cases to plead guilty earlier, an awful lot of victims would feel that they have been better treated by the system.

Sadiq Khan: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has enthusiastically set out the case for why he believes an increase in the discount of up to 50% should be carried through. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

Mr Clarke: This was an entirely collectively agreed policy on which we went out and consulted, so the answer is yes, of course. The Prime Minister runs a scrupulously collective Government, and I am an extremely loyal Minister much used to collective Government. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has much experience of collective Government, but I commend the system to him—and to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was of course fiercely embattled on one side in the previous Government.

We agreed that this was a reasonable proposition on which to consult because, as I said, the system that we inherited is not achieving the benefits that the previous Government presumably thought it might achieve when they set it up.

Sadiq Khan: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for generously allowing me a second bite of the cherry. He has correctly said that the Prime Minister signed up to the consultation, which ended on 4 March this year. He talked about collective responsibility. Can he confirm that last Tuesday morning the Cabinet Committee signed off on this proposal?

Mr Clarke: Even in a collective Government, one does not analyse what happens in Cabinet Committees before coming to one’s final conclusions. I am not going to disclose the contents of the Cabinet Committee’s proceedings for at least 20 years. The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that we do go to Cabinet Committees, but we have not yet finished our consultation process. [ Interruption. ] He is persisting, so let me repeat what I asked earlier: how many days ago did he and the Leader of the Opposition decide that they were going to run with this? Was it by any chance connected with the slight flurry of excitement in the media at the end of last week? He and his party, and his Front-Bench team, have not had a policy on this or any other subject to do with criminal justice for the past nine months. Let him study the processes that this Government follow, and no doubt they will guide him if ever he is lucky enough to get into great office.

The current system does not get enough early pleas and is a complete waste of resources. The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and others in the legal system use up millions of hours preparing cases that never make it beyond the door of the courtroom. That has to be changed. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has called for

“a reorientation of our approach so that guilty plea cases can be dealt with as swiftly as possible, leaving us to devote our valuable time and resources to cases that really require them. That way we may just begin to tackle the delays that still bedevil criminal justice.”

We are still considering the responses to our Green Paper proposals to increase the maximum discount for the very earliest pleas to one half, and to then have a

23 May 2011 : Column 673

taper, to encourage the earliest plea and disincentivise the late plea. We received many calm and reasoned responses over many months. There was no loud opposition at all to the principle of the proposal until last week. The rush for this debate is slightly pathetic and slightly comic. I do not know where it came from. I have a feeling that the Leader of the Opposition, not yet having decided what he was for, was wandering the streets looking for a passing bandwagon and prodded the right hon. Member for Tooting into putting down a motion.

Some people are claiming that the proposal is simply to reduce the sentences available for criminals, and that is worrying some of my colleagues. As I began by emphasising, it is no part of our reforms to reduce sentences, the protection of the public or the punishment for serious crime. That is not what the Government or I are about. In response, I say very clearly that judges will continue to have discretion in setting the appropriate sentence in individual cases. I will not shorten the length of sentences available to them in any kind of criminal case. I do not think that the Opposition contest the principle, as has been emphasised. I do not understand the argument that they would be in favour of my reforms if they were not combined with saving public expenditure. That is not a compelling point. Reforms to the efficiency and effectiveness of the system are required.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab) rose—

Mr Clarke: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I really should sit down soon.

Let me deal with what we are trying to reform and why. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), said in the Daily Mail on Friday that I should

“order a wholesale review of how the court system works”.

He went on:

“my own jury experience left me staggered by the sheer waste of time and public money resulting from the chaos in our courts.”

Chris Bryant: It is the judges.

Mr Clarke: After 13 years, they say it is the judges. It is actually that the system does not facilitate the disposal of cases in the best possible way in the interests of victims, the police, the taxpayer and, above all, justice itself.

I have found quotations from the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who unfortunately is not in his place. He is the one who placed a more onerous obligation on judges to follow the early guilty plea guideline. Perhaps he is not here because, like me, he cannot understand what on earth got into the head of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in thinking that this was a suitable subject for debate.

I remember the right hon. Member for Tooting declaring in this House that he welcomed plans for a clear sentencing framework. In December he thought that they were

“a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy, entirely in keeping with the emphasis on punishment and reform that Labour followed in government”.—[Official Report, 7 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 171.]

23 May 2011 : Column 674

I pay tribute to him for being so helpful and constructive in response to our proposals. It is a pity that he has been bullied into picking out bits and distorting them in this debate. The principle of a more efficient system of justice is not wrong, and the principle of the early guilty plea is not wrong—I am afraid that it is the state of the Opposition that is really wrong. That is what has brought the debate to the House.

The former Prime Minister’s old speechwriter, Phil Collins, apparently said last Friday:

“Labour don’t have a particularly strong position on crime of any kind”.

Well, we will help them. We have a policy, and it is very clear. We will reform the criminal justice system to focus it on punishing offenders, protecting the public and tackling the scourge of reoffending. We intend to make prisons places of hard work, not enforced idleness. We will get prisoners off drugs, and drugs out of prisons. We will toughen up the current weak and failed system of community sentences, and we will introduce a radical payment-by-results approach that will introduce innovative public and private sector solutions focused on what really matters, which is breaking the devastating cycle of crime.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. There is a six-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, but if Members can get their points across in less than six minutes, they will be helping their colleagues.

5.45 pm

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State, who presented a familiar face. There was a mixture of pragmatism, an element of bluster and just the occasional shaft of precision in his argument.

I begin by making an obvious point, and I do so at the risk of sounding like Michael Howard, now Lord Howard. We often lose sight of part of the meaning of what he said on the subject. Prison does work, at least to a limited extent. It seems to me an incontestable fact that while somebody is locked up in prison, they cannot commit offences out in the community. There have been many cases in my constituency over the years in which people have been given a custodial sentence and been taken out of the community, even if only for three or six months, and there has been an appreciable difference in the crime rate. Local police inspectors and senior officers in my area, and I am sure in other areas, will attest to the fact that prison works in those circumstances.

In my remaining time, I wish to cover two issues, the first of which is sentencing in general, which is the main subject of the debate. I approach it from the vantage point—or it might be a disadvantage point—of having sat on the Gage working group, which reported in July 2008. I will refer briefly to that report, then I want to say a word about community sentences.

The Gage working group examined, among many other things, the causes of the increased prison population to which the Secretary of State referred. We highlighted nine points. I will not go through all of them—time forbids, and in any event the Secretary of State has already referred to them, and my right hon. Friend the

23 May 2011 : Column 675

Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has covered the same points. However, I wish to pick out one of the nine, because the Secretary of State made a great point of talking about reoffending. Point (5) in paragraph 2.2, on page 5 of the report, states that

“re-offending including breaches of supervision, licence recall, suspended sentences and community orders”

is one of the drivers that increase the prison population. I shall come back to that point later, but it is important to recognise that the prison population increased for reasons relating to the alternatives to prison sentences.

This month, the new Sentencing Council, which was established from the Gage commission and subsequent legislation, produced a survey, “Attitudes to guilty plea sentence reductions”, which is germane to this point—it is included in the note produced by the House of Commons Library. I shall focus on three of the survey’s findings that have some force, the first of which is a point that the Secretary of State used to criticised my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting. First, the survey states:

“The public assume that the key motivation for the guilty plea sentence reduction is to reduce resources (time and money)…There is a strong sense that the drive for cost savings should not impact on a system effectively delivering justice.”

Secondly, it states:

“For the general public, there was weak support for higher levels of reductions beyond the current guideline range of up to 33%”.

Thirdly, it states:

“The public (and some victims and witnesses) do not like the idea of a universal approach to reductions”.

There is therefore a strong disconnect between the Secretary of State’s proposals and how the public feel things need to be handled, which is a real problem. I accept that he is making a genuine attempt to address the issue—he is not one for eye-catching initiatives. However, he has not won over the public, and he certainly has not won over large numbers of his own Back Benchers, and for that—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order.

5.52 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I begin by saying that the Lord Chancellor should not have used words that led people to believe that he did not treat all rapes as serious crimes. However, when I set that against his attempt to create a rational debate on criminal justice policy, I know on whose side my sympathies, in general, lie. In addition, it was a tactical mistake of the Opposition to turn that into a resignation issue, and a further demonstration that we need such a rational debate.

Furthermore, the debate on extending the discount for early guilty pleas should not have become focused on rape, because it might be more appropriate for other crimes. I remain to be convinced that the enhanced discount will produce the full intended savings in the prison population. It is worth pursuing for some crimes and would be inappropriate for others. The current one third discount needs the careful exercise of the judge’s discretion, which is in some ways circumscribed too much, because distinctions must be drawn between

23 May 2011 : Column 676

cases in which a guilty verdict is almost inevitable, and those in which a guilty plea avoids lengthy proceedings with an uncertain outcome.

The aim of getting guilty pleas earlier is sensible, but many court-door pleas are based on the lack of early knowledge of the prosecution case, or a belief that witnesses will be intimidated into not turning up. Greater discounts will not of themselves change that. If the policy succeeds, it will enable other cases to be brought to trial more quickly, which would be a very welcome development, even if it might not assist in making financial savings because it could lead to more custodial sentences.

The public continue to see length of sentence as the only way of asserting society’s abhorrence of serious crimes, regardless of whether the long sentence has any deterrent effect, which it clearly does not in some cases, and regardless of whether the offender considers the sentence to be particularly punitive. Some offenders regard community punishments as more exacting than prison, which means bed and breakfast, and three meals a day. For many offenders, life outside is disorganised, dysfunctional and not particularly comfortable.

We must ask, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is asking, whether we are spending the vast resources that we commit to the criminal justice system in a way that is effective in reducing the crime and victimisation that result from reoffending. Resources are not unlimited, and it is our responsibility to use them to protect our constituents from becoming victims of crime. That requires a transfer of some resources from custody to community punishment, and from custody to preventing people, particularly young people, from getting involved in crime in the first place.

If we had only ever treated the symptoms of illness and devoted minimal effort to prevention and public health, we would have made very little progress in eradicating diseases and increasing life expectancy. We must apply some of that philosophy to preventing crime and reoffending. Every crime and instance of reoffending that is not prevented makes victims of our constituents. We need a rational debate on how we organise policy so that we prevent people from becoming involved in crime and from returning to it.

Michael Ellis: Further to the right hon. Gentleman’s medical analogy, does he agree that it is highly likely that people would stop prescribing a medicine if it did not work 70% or 80% of the time?

Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. What is more, we would be better to prevent people from getting the condition in the first place than to give them medicine late in the day.

Successive reports of the Select Committee on Justice have tried to launch, support and encourage a rational debate on our criminal justice policy. That, I believe, is what the Lord Chancellor has been trying to do, and I encourage him to continue in that endeavour.

5.56 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Although I do not agree with a blanket 50% discount, I accept the sincerity of Government Ministers in trying to reform sentencing. Despite the Lord Chancellor’s denials, the

23 May 2011 : Column 677

problem is that the Treasury has set those Ministers a slightly unreasonable cost-cutting agenda, which will inevitably undermine some of their ambitions. Cost cutting simply will not give us better sentencing outcomes, and as I am sure the Lord Chancellor knows, effective community alternatives to custody are not a cheap option.

Any review of sentencing needs to take account of the public and demonstrate that both the politicians and the experts charged with the reforms genuinely listen to and take on board the public’s concerns. In that respect, we need to start with victims and ensure that their needs are at the centre. We need to ensure that they are not forgotten or tacked on as an afterthought as courts focus too much attention on the offence and the offence tariff rather than on the impact of the crime.

The public need to know that the money being spent makes a difference and that the justice system belongs to them and not to the professionals or the experts, or even worse, to the offenders, as it sometimes seems. If the Lord Chancellor really wants to protect victims and witnesses in the judicial process, we perhaps need to prise some elements of the justice system from those that currently hog the scene. This is not about blaming judges, but I am not convinced that the current structure of our courts and the selection of judges and—in some cases—magistrates, are the best that they could be. Their sentences frequently do not make sense to most normal people, and at times, they seem to be totally out of touch with the communities that experience most of the crime.

Karl Turner: My hon. Friend mentions victims. I have just been doing the maths on this. Someone who is convicted of the offence of causing death by careless driving while over the proscribed limit will end up with something like nine months. How is that fair to the victim?

Steve McCabe: That is my point about focusing more on the impact of the crime.

We need to return to the experiment with community courts for lower-level crimes. That kind of approach has public support, even if the legal establishment, which is well represented in the House, is sceptical, and many of my constituents would welcome attention being paid to these matters. Thinking about what the Lord Chancellor said, it seems to me that we need a rethink. This is not about who runs the prisons, but about how they are run. We need to establish the value of short custodial sentences. What does a 10-week sentence set out to achieve? More importantly, we need to know, as he acknowledged, why it is easier to get drugs and other contraband in prison than outside. [Interruption.] Members can say, “It’s your legacy”, but it is a legacy that has been developing for years, and if we reduce the debate to that sort of silly, cheap remark, any benefits we might derive from the time available for debate will be lost. That is why they are wasting their time with that kind of muttering.

I want to know why this continues to happen. Why do we keep reading about prisoners taking us to court? Why can anyone in prison for more than a few months leave still unable to read and write? If the Lord Chancellor really wants to help and to demonstrate that the things

23 May 2011 : Column 678

he has spoken about today will be activated, he needs to tell us what he is going to do, and to do more than simply repeat the concerns in the Chamber.

We need to clarify the purpose of custody. The priorities for long-term prisoners are straightforward. They should be about security and then a long path to rehabilitation. However, for the short term and the frequent offenders that he mentioned, surely we need to have more credible forms of punishment and restitution, and more imaginative sentencing. That might mean ending the divide between prison and the community. Why not have prison sentences for evenings or weekends? Why not curb leisure time? Surely what matters is that the time is used constructively, and that any activity is not confused with leisure time or voluntary activity; it has to be about punishment, control and making amends.

The public want to see and hear punishment as well as rehabilitation. There have to be fewer opportunities for people to avoid responsibility for their actions, and courts need to entertain fewer excuses. I agree with the Lord Chancellor, but where in his policy are there clear directions and obligations in sentencing? I want to know that there will be rigorous testing, directive counselling and control for offences relating to substance abuse. If the Government were to take us along that path, rather than spending so much time repeating an analysis we all broadly share, and if they were to make clear their intentions, we might be able to have a much more constructive debate, instead of one in the terms being debated today.

Nevertheless, we are having this debate because the Government have set out to cut prison numbers, largely on a cost-cutting basis. The Lord Chancellor has refused to give details of exactly how he is going to provide credible—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I call Philip Davies.

6.4 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Although I am speaking in favour of this Opposition day motion, I think it is the height of hypocrisy for the Labour party to lead the charge on crime, given that it presided over the automatic release of people halfway through their sentences, which created many unnecessary victims of crime. As we have heard from my hon. Friends today, the Labour party released 18 days early almost 80,000 prisoners who between them went on to carry out an additional 1,512 offences, including three murders, rapes and assaults, while they should have still been in prison. One convict, originally jailed for battering a woman to death, was released, only to lure a 10-year-old boy back to a flat, where he threatened to slash his throat with a craft knife before raping him. That is not what I call being tough on crime, despite what the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) would like us to believe.

I would like to clarify that, no doubt contrary to popular opinion, as a Government Member I do not particularly enjoy voting in favour of Opposition day motions. However, the Justice Secretary’s recent proposals are simply unacceptable to the majority of my constituents and the British public as a whole.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I can assure my hon. Friend that they are also unacceptable to the people of Brigg and Goole. Is not the record of the

23 May 2011 : Column 679

previous Government which he described exactly why we entered the election promising tougher sentences, to end the early release scheme and to be more honest with the public about our plans?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right. It is astonishing that some of our hon. Friends, who were happy to enter the election promising to send more criminals to prison, and to put in place longer sentences and honesty in sentences, are now advocating sending fewer people to prison for a shorter time. I did not tell that to my constituents when I stood in the election.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Forgive me, I am not learned or a lawyer, but we have not suggested that fewer people would go to prison, have we? We have suggested that prison sentences could be cut by up to 50%, but that it would be for the judges to decide. It would not necessarily be 50%.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is clutching at straws. The Secretary of State made it clear that as a result of the proposal fewer people would be in prison. That is the whole purpose of the measure. My hon. Friend ought to reflect on the fact that this is an arbitrary proposal, because there is absolutely no evidence suggesting that more people will plead guilty as a result. If that does not happen, will the Secretary of State return to the House in a few months suggesting a three-quarters discount for pleading guilty in order to get a few more convictions? Where will it end? Why not scrap prison sentences altogether? This is a slippery slope. It is ludicrous and not based in evidence.

Most people think that punishment is not heavy enough. It has been estimated that between 2007 and 2009, criminals on probation have been responsible for 121 murders and 44 cases of manslaughter, along with 103 rapes and 80 kidnappings. In total, they were responsible for more than 1,000 serious violent or sexual offences in the two years from April 2006, while almost 400 more suspects are awaiting trial. Most people looking at these figures would conclude that too few, not too many, people were being sent to prison, and most would conclude that people are not being sent to prison for long enough, not that they should be let out even earlier.

As we have heard, a senior judge, Lord Justice Thomas, warned that as a result of these proposals, a rapist facing five years in prison could get off with a sentence halved to just 30 months by pleading guilty earlier. However, because of what the previous Government did, which the Secretary of State appears to support, that offender would then be released after only 15 months behind bars. Fifteen months for a five-year sentence! That is what is happening under a Conservative-led Government.

Mr Kenneth Clarke: The example given by my hon. Friend is fanciful, because the average sentence for rape is eight years. Sentences will vary but in the end the judge will decide what justice and the seriousness of the offence justify. Needless public alarm is caused because the public find it difficult to know what the sentences are. If it reassures my hon. Friend, however, I can say that I would regard someone being released from the prison part of their sentence after 15 months as quite inadequate in a case of rape.

23 May 2011 : Column 680

Philip Davies: The Secretary of State and I differ. He seems to think it perfectly reasonable for somebody to get eight years in prison and serve only two, but I think that it is unacceptable. [Hon. Members: “He didn’t say that.”] I am disappointed he thinks that somebody who is given an eight-year sentence should be given a 50% discount for an early plea, reducing the sentence to four years, and so be released after two. [Hon. Members: “No, he didn’t say that.”] That means two years for an eight-year sentence, which to me and most people is totally unacceptable.

Anna Soubry: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Philip Davies: No, there is not time.

That is what the Secretary of State is proposing. That is what happened to Gabrielle Browne, who sparked the debate when she questioned the Secretary of State—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Gentleman will be heard. Members will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate in due course. This is quite unacceptable when he is speaking.

Philip Davies: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Gabrielle Browne was attacked by an African immigrant, Mohammed Kendeh, who had just been let out of prison four months into a one-year sentence. He had sexually assaulted five other women in the same park a year before, but was spared jail for those offences. Non-custodial sentences do not appear to work in such cases. Similarly, in a recent case in west Yorkshire a serial rapist was freed from jail early only to commit another sickening attack. He had subjected a string of women to terrifying rapes and sexual assaults as far back as 1984, but served only eight years of a 14-year sentence for raping an 18-year-old woman. Upon his release, he carried out a further rape on a 24-year-old as she left a nightclub.

We will get more and more such cases, with people serving more and more derisory prison sentences, then let out to create more and more unnecessary victims of crime. When people with no offending history are caught for crimes and have to wait to be convicted, it is understandable that it should take time to bring them to justice. However, it is unforgivable for people in government to preside over a system that lets people out of prison earlier than necessary, in order for them to go on and commit more crimes and create more victims of crime. We need to review the current situation, in which people are released from prison early.

People keep telling me that Scandinavian countries are marvellous when it comes to these things, so I went to Denmark to see at first hand what they did. One thing that never seems to come out is that in Denmark, people are not automatically released halfway through their sentences. They are released only if they behave well; and in fact, 30% of prisoners in Danish prisons serve their full sentences because they are not deemed safe to release from prison early. Those are the things that the Secretary of State should be looking at, not trying to have people serve lower sentences in the first place. Indeed, it is his proposals that are causing the British public to lose confidence in the British criminal justice system and in this place.

23 May 2011 : Column 681

Last week I asked the Secretary of State to read some research commissioned by Lord Ashcroft into the opinion of the public, victims of crime and police officers. Some 80% of those polled thought that sentences were too lenient. Similarly, when asked whether they expected the new coalition Government to be tougher on crime than the last Labour Government, 50% of those polled said that they expected them to be tougher, while 9% said less tough. When asked their views now that they had seen the Secretary of State in action for a year, only 13% thought that the Government were tougher, while 23% thought that they were less tough.

These proposals have to go. I very much fear that if the Secretary of State does not listen to the widespread opposition to these plans, then for us to restore our reputation as a party of law and order, he will have to go as well.

6.12 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I want to talk about this Government’s record on crime where women are victims or offenders, and to show that the latest attempt to propose a 50% discount for early guilty pleas—which was offered up by the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), as doing women rape victims a favour—is a desperate ploy that could only be the product of a men-only Department which, to be frank, just does not get it when it comes to women and crime.

It is not just Ministers’ fault, however: when I was a Home Office Minister working with the National Offender Management Service, I discovered that officials believed that women offenders in prisons were basically exactly the same as men and were to be treated the same. The consequence was an appalling deluge of women self-harming and killing themselves in jail. I realised that we needed a comprehensive rethink of the issue, and helped to commission Baroness Corston to look at it. She came up with an excellent report that showed many of the ways that prisons dealt ineffectually and unfairly with women, who are more likely to be jailed for non-violent offences than men, more likely to be remanded when they are later found innocent, and very likely to have been victims of violence themselves before committing any offence.

It seems that we are getting the same kind of cloth-eared view on how women as victims are treated. We need to approach them in the same way that Baroness Corston approached women offenders: by really looking at how to reduce future crime, by ensuring that the children of offending women are less likely to become offenders themselves, by listening to victims and those in the system, and by doing a careful study rather than what I believe we are facing, which is a back-of-the-envelope calculation—“This’ll get me off the hook with the Treasury.”

Let us look briefly at Labour’s record, which Government Members have mentioned extensively. The most striking thing in relation to rape is the increase of sentences served between 2005 and 2009, the period for which we have the most recent figures. Sentences served increased by 14 months over that period because of determined work by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member

23 May 2011 : Column 682

for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and Baroness Scotland, who worked together to start taking unduly lenient sentences back to court and ensure that dangerous rapists were not released early. We then realised that we were not doing enough, so we commissioned Baroness Stern to look at how rape was treated in the criminal justice system. She was impressed by a number of the changes that we had made, including introducing specialist police units—which are now due to be cut by the Home Office—increasing by 15% the number of rapists convicted, improving the way cases were dealt with in court, and introducing specialist prosecutors in all 42 Crown Prosecution Service areas. Of course, the number of CPS areas has now been cut, so although every area might claim to have specialist prosecutors, I doubt whether there will be as many as there were.

The difference between that and what we see now is carefully thinking through what will make a difference. I am genuinely shocked by the Minister, who I do not think is a bad man. I share his desire to reduce reoffending, and I recognise his point that short sentences—those under four years—are ineffectual. That is one of the reasons why I want to ensure that no rapist is in jail for less than four years. He said that there was no loud opposition to the proposal. What that means is that he has not bothered to read the representations that women’s organisations made in response to his Green Paper. I am afraid that we are seeing a cloth-eared, don’t-get-the-women approach from this Department. I want Ministers to think again. We were told that victims’ organisations would really welcome the proposal because victims would not have to go through the horror of a trial. Yes, rape trials are horrible—they are very degrading for the victim—but if the trial does not go ahead, then although the judge hears the plea in mitigation, he never hears how the victim’s life has been destroyed.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I wonder whether the hon. Lady has actually read the Green Paper. One of the things that it addresses is the right of victims—a right that they never really had under the Government whom she supported—to give a proper impact statement on how the crime has affected them. If she cares to read the Green Paper, we will not have these silly points made.

Fiona Mactaggart: I was one of those Home Office Ministers who introduced the concept of victim impact statements, so I am well aware of that, but the problem is that with early guilty pleas, that has not usually been the case in practice. From my reading of the Green Paper it is not clear to me what will happen: will Ministers automatically ensure that the victim impact statement can fully outline what has happened to the victim?

I do not believe therefore that what is proposed is being done to make the victim’s experience better. There is no evidence of that, because there is no evidence of careful listening to victims’ organisations, which is what I would have expected had that been the case. I would have expected real engagement with women’s organisations that deal regularly with the victims of rape and other sexual violence. According to the British crime survey, one in 250 women were victims of sexual assault in the last year. This is a widespread offence, and we are not taking it sufficiently seriously when the Secretary of

23 May 2011 : Column 683

State for Justice can say, “Well, there’s rape and then there’s rape.” We need to change the way we deal with this issue. We need to be really serious about these issues. Although there is a case for discounts for early guilty pleas, they should not be universally applied to people who have been responsible for some of the most violent and degrading crimes, and his Green Paper does not stop that—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

6.20 pm

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): We have about 4,000 women in British prisons. A small fraction of them need to be locked up; the vast majority do not. Most of these women are serving very short-term sentences, with 64% serving less than six months. Those serving short sentences are not subject to any supervision on release, and their prison sentences are too short to provide proper rehabilitation. The result is a vicious circle of family breakdown, chaos, reoffending and huge cost to the taxpayer.

Women in prison are a highly vulnerable group, and they commit crime because of this vulnerability and because of earlier failures to protect and support. More than half have suffered domestic violence, and a third have suffered sexual assault. Up to 80% have mental health problems. Many of them self-harm, and many have attempted suicide. More than half have alcohol problems, and 27% have drug problems. When a woman goes to prison, her children suffer too, with homes being repossessed and children ending up in care. Some women are pregnant when they go to prison, and the sight of babies and toddlers spending their earliest moments in a situation that is the complete opposite of a family home is an affront to my senses as a mother, a family lawyer and a politician. When a man goes to prison, a woman is usually there for him when he gets out. When a woman goes to prison, the man is often nowhere to be seen.

The Government’s plans to reform the criminal justice system set out in the Green Paper helpfully recognise that women offenders have a different profile of risk and need. I was encouraged recently by the response of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), to my parliamentary question on the effectiveness of short-term prison sentences for women. He said:

“Short-term sentences for men have proven pretty ineffective, and I think that short-term sentences for women are even more ineffective…We support the conclusions of the Corston report…we are committed to reducing the number of women in prison, and a network of women-only community provision is being developed to support robust community sentences.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 163.]

Those community offender projects for women, to which the Minister referred, provide a genuine alternative to custody. They are run by charities that work in partnership with the police, the prisons, the probation service and health and social services, and they provide wrap-around support for the woman. They help her to stabilise her life. They find her somewhere to live and ensure that she is safe. They start to deal with mental health and addiction problems, and they allow magistrates to sentence a woman to community penalties with confidence. Early evaluations of the projects look very good, in terms of reducing costs and the rate of reoffending. Those projects

23 May 2011 : Column 684

have been funded by the Ministry of Justice, and I hope that such funding will be continued, notwithstanding the difficult financial climate.

Philip Davies: The answer to a parliamentary question that I asked revealed that, for every age group and for every offence, women are already far less likely than men to be given to a custodial sentence. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to stop women going to prison is for them not to commit those crimes in the first place?

Mrs Grant: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but this is why we are looking at robust community alternatives to prison.

It would be a missed opportunity if these projects were not expanded, and an absolutely travesty if they were cut. We need a strong message from the Government that prison is not the right place for women who pose no threat to the public. I accept that the public and the judges need to feel more confident about community sentences, and their scepticism must certainly be dealt with. Community sentences are not fluffy options. They are intensive interventions that absolutely challenge a woman to change her life. They will also enable her to see that her future could look very different from her past.

6.24 pm

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on her wonderful, thought-provoking speech. I have not heard the case for women prisoners articulated so well since I came to the House.

There is a gaping hole at the heart of the Government’s Green Paper on sentencing: it is the voice of the victim. Rehabilitation is important to victims. They want to know that their experience has not been in vain. They are anxious to prevent other people from becoming victims, and they want to know that their ordeal—traumatic, distressing and damaging though it was—can produce a change that will help others. For that reason, victims want certainty in sentencing. Rehabilitation is often valued by victims, but punishment and reparation must come first.

Why should victims believe that rehabilitation will work when their own experience of the criminal justice system is so lacking? The Government assure us, sometimes with the best of intentions, that rehabilitation will succeed, at the same time as proposing that sentences should be cut and fewer people should be incarcerated. Our criminal justice system involves a deal between the citizen and the state. We do not personally catch and punish others who have wronged us; we stand back and trust professionals to take care of justice on our behalf. We are entitled, however, to expect transparency in return. That is the deal.

Rehabilitation acts both ways. We can all understand why the rehabilitation of offenders is important, but what about the rehabilitation of victims? Victims often feel that they serve a longer sentence than the perpetrator, yet they are entitled to less. There is not enough trauma care for those who are suddenly bereaved. There is inadequate counselling on offer for children, and counselling is sometimes delayed until after a trial, for fear that it might contaminate the evidence. That irresponsible and unnecessary practice must stop.

23 May 2011 : Column 685

Bob Stewart: I gave evidence for the prosecution in a murder trial in 1986. In the middle of my evidence, the plea was changed. The people sitting behind me were seriously grateful that they no longer had to go into the witness box. Sometimes, victims such as those are grateful for any method that allows them to avoid having to go through their experience again in court. I make that point only because I think that it is valid.

Mrs Chapman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I accept that what he says is true. My point is that increasing the discount to 50% will not in any way improve the experience of victims.

It is true that victims benefit from efficiency in the criminal justice system. Unnecessary and costly administration helps no one, but the attempt to make savings by cutting sentences by up to 50% in return for a guilty plea is not a fair way of going about this. Justice is at the heart of the system, and it must not become its casualty.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s ideas in the Green Paper on work in prisons. It is important and beneficial to victims that the system should turn out people who are able to lead law-abiding lives, and I am pleased that he has suggested that wages earned by prisoners should be used to compensate victims. He needs to ensure that that happens. A fund needs to be established in which the money can be collected centrally for redistribution to victims, because they generally do not want the ongoing regular direct relationship with an offender that a monthly direct debit can entail. A centrally co-ordinated victims fund to assist with reparation would help in that regard.

No one seems to believe that community sentences are real punishment. They are seen as second best, the soft option or the cheapest option. Sadly, that is all too often true. Community sentences should be highly visible, and that includes making the offenders themselves highly visible. The public must be responsible for nominating work schemes, and the probation service needs to see tough punishment as part of its brief. Community sentences should be tough, physical, intensive and of direct benefit to the community that has suffered. Breaches should be rigorously enforced.

Of greatest concern, however, are the Government’s proposals to alter indeterminate sentences for public protection. No offender convicted of rape, sexual assault or child abuse should be released without an assessment of their risk to the public. The Green Paper assumes that non-dangerous IPP inmates are serving longer than they need to. I know that inmates and their families are arguing for this. Where, however, is the voice of the victim? Could it be that parole boards are making the right call in keeping us safe from some of the most predatory offenders in the system? We should let them continue to do so.

Reduced sentences for guilty pleas have been thoroughly debated in recent days, but the Government need to find other ways to ease the experience of the criminal justice system for victims. An offender who pleads guilty late in the process should be penalised, not rewarded, for an early plea. How an offender pleads has nothing to do with the seriousness of the crime—crime should be punished, rather than the ability to play the system be rewarded. The Government’s proposals will not encourage more people to plead guilty early. Such decisions are

23 May 2011 : Column 686

based on the likely outcome and the strength of evidence, not on the discount offered. All the current proposal does is alienate victims; it is wrong.

The Government need to make the light by which the needs of victims can be seen. So far, this is missing from their proposal. Reoffending rates improved in the last decade, but it will be a long time before rehabilitation will be good enough for it to be seen as more important in sentencing than reparation or punishment. The Government will be judged on who they prioritise in criminal justice—and this must be the victim.

6.31 pm

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): I think that the Opposition Front-Bench team do their Back Benchers a great disservice; we have heard some interesting and thoughtful contributions, especially from the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth). Once again, however, we have seen the Opposition Front-Bench team jumping on the bandwagon of the week. Three weeks ago it was Sure Start and the Opposition showed their commitment to that in the Opposition day debate with only four or five Members present, yet there were dozens on the Government Benches. Last week, we had the Opposition day debate on the health service, at which the car crash unfolded because Labour Members were unable to attack the proposals effectively. Now, today, we see an attack on Government proposals that were published in the autumn of last year, which had been supported in large part by the Leader of the Opposition and his Front-Bench team. Yet they have just discovered now that they find some truck with some elements of it. This shameless and shameful opportunism would be extraordinary in any other group of people, were it not for the fact that this Opposition have shown themselves to be experts in turning opportunism into a low art.

At the end of last year, the Opposition spokesman said:

“I am not going to say Ken Clarke is being soft on crime… because he is asking the right questions about rehabilitation rates”.

What of the speech of the Leader of the Opposition to the Labour party conference just minutes after he had been made the new leader? He said that

“when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime… This new generation must find a new way of conducting politics.”

What a new way of conducting politics—to agree to radical and brave proposals by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary and come here and attack them the minute the bandwagon is passing. The Opposition are so misguided because for the first time in a generation a Government have been brave enough to make difficult proposals that will help victims in the long run.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s forthright views on opportunism. He was not a Member before the last election, but his party, including his leader, were very good at opportunism at that time. Has he tested any of these ideas on the electorate of Ipswich?

Ben Gummer: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Although there are many things on which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who

23 May 2011 : Column 687

spoke previously, I differ on this issue. At the last election, I was very plain with people when they spoke about prison reform. The hon. Gentleman might know that I have had a long-running interest in the subject. I told people in Ipswich what I am about to explain to him now—that our current penal system does victims a disservice.

It is not a difficult equation to understand, although I know the Opposition do not understand problems in this way. It was the same with the hospital debate. Instead of looking at how to improve cancer survival rates, they look at the structures of GP fundholding. In this instance, they look not at how to improve the experience of victims or how to bring down crime, but at how many people we are sentencing and for how long. They are looking at processes and inputs rather than results. If we turn that on its head and look at the victim rather than the criminal, as we have been asked to do, we might find a different way out.

We want to do something for victims, of whom there are too many. We wish to cut crime. We know that the majority of crime is committed by people who have already offended once or many times previously. What do we do about it? Do we try to increase reoffending rates or do we try to reduce them? It is the experience of Members of all parties that the prison, probation and the community service system are failing on every single account to encourage rehabilitation and to cut the number of victims.

Andrew Percy: I thank my hon. Friend for his brave speech. No victim of crime in Brigg and Goole has ever written to me to say that they wished the people who had committed crimes against them had served shorter sentences. On this issue, he seems to be separating out the idea of prison from rehabilitation, but is it not possible to have both prison and rehabilitation by conducting rehabilitation in prison?

Ben Gummer: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, as he will find out if he listens a little further. I am a great proponent of tougher prison sentences, of making them longer for certain crimes and of taking away the televisions and the PlayStations in favour of making prisoners do hard work during the day, learn a skill and work towards being creative members of society on coming out of prison.

The problem with the case of Labour Members, some of whom have made an alliance with some of the more extreme Conservative Members [Hon. Members: “Name them.”] No, they know who they are! It is an interesting alliance. [Interruption.] Just wait and they will be proposing flogging next. What Labour Members do not understand is that for short custodial sentences, we are seeing increasing rates of reoffending, which means only more victims. That is not to say that we should be putting people on pansy community sentencing; we should not, because many of those sentences do not work. Why can we not follow the example of the Germans, who have a prison population of 72,000 people in an overall population of 80 million; or of France, whose prison population is 60,000 in an overall population equivalent to our own? In both jurisdictions, crime is lower because their community rehabilitation systems are stronger, especially for short-term custodial sentences.

23 May 2011 : Column 688

We have heard from Members representing constituencies in the north-east and the north-west, where more than two thirds of court cases crack before their end either through the incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service or because of the guilty plea being made either mid way through or at the end of the trial. None of that does anything to help victims, which is important, and on top of that it commits millions of pounds that could be spent on picking up criminals, putting them in court, convicting them and keeping them in prison if they are a danger to the public.

Let me finish with another point about criminals. The victims commissioner, Louise Casey, said of these cracked trials that they increase “anxiety among victims” and cause great fear among witnesses at the “prospect of giving evidence”. Why cannot Opposition Members congratulate the Justice Secretary on bringing proposals to the House that will reduce anxiety among victims and help to improve the prospects of bringing people to justice rather than just jump once again on to a passing media bandwagon? I am afraid that they also show once again that in the absence of their own policy, the Opposition have nothing to offer this country—not even an apology for their grievous mistakes over the past 13 years.

6.39 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): We would all like to see prison population decline, but for the right reasons. We would like to see a continuation of the reduction in crime that took place when we were in government. I will not dwell on the devastating effects that the drastic cuts in the police budgets are likely to have on crime detection rates, as my hon. Friends will raise that issue in this evening’s second debate.

We all want to see a reduction in crime and Labour Members believe that crucial factors in reducing crime include ensuring good education opportunities for all our young people; ensuring job opportunities for all; ensuring that everyone, including those on the lowest wages, have enough to live on; providing proper mental health services in a fully funded public national health service; and tackling issues such as drug and alcohol addiction.

As was pointed out by members of the audience during last week’s “Question Time”—prison officers and prisoners alike—when people do end up in jail, it is important that proper help and support is provided to rehabilitate prisoners so that they can be reintegrated in society. However, that requires funding and space, which was one of the reasons for our plan to provide more prison places. Many electors thought that that was also the policy of the Conservative party, and they must feel badly let down, because they now understand that the Conservatives’ policy is simply to reduce sentences for violent crime. Some new prisons, such as the prison that we planned to build in north Wales, would also have enabled prisoners to remain closer to their communities, with important consequences in terms of family contact and increased chances of successful release.

Constituents of mine are horrified by the Government’s proposals. They are horrified by the idea that sentences could be reduced by 50% in the case of all offences in the event of early guilty pleas. They are horrified by the fact that those offences would include violent crimes such as rape, and by the fact that a convicted rapist

23 May 2011 : Column 689

could serve only 15 months in jail. As the Secretary of State will know, in 2003 Labour introduced the Sentencing Guidelines Council, the forerunner of the Sentencing Council, which came into being in 2010 and is charged with promoting a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing. It opposes the 50% reduction, believing that an offender’s decision to plead guilty should not be allowed to reduce a sentence by more than 35%. It has also said—this is for the information of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer)—that the reduction will not increase the tendency of defendants to plead guilty.

I am particularly concerned by the Government’s attitude to rapists and their victims. Last year they proposed anonymity for rape defendants, sending the message that such defendants needed more protection than others because their accuser was more likely to be lying. That was a disgraceful suggestion and proposal. It is hard enough for a woman to report a rape and undergo the dreadful ordeal of having to relive the experience in order to see justice done, without her being made to feel even more undermined because the defendant’s right to anonymity implies that she is lying. I am glad to report that following fierce opposition from Labour Members—led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—the proposal was dropped.

It was even more depressing to hear the Secretary of State’s rather flippant comments about rape last week. Particularly depressing was his comment about date rape. Date rape can involve deception, betrayal of trust, and drugging someone with no regard for the harmful effects that that can have: acts undertaken deliberately to violate the victim’s body. There is nothing glamorous about that. A rape in those circumstances is still a rape, a disgusting, despicable act. The rapist deliberately places his victim in circumstances that could be life-endangering, not only carrying out the rape but possibly even thinking, at the back of his mind, that the effects—or perceived effects—of memory loss may make the victim less likely to seek help very shortly after the crime, and that the victim may have considerable difficulty in describing events or being believed. It certainly does not help for the Secretary of State to imply that that is somehow a less serious kind of rape.

All rapes, and all violent crimes, must be taken very seriously, and their perpetrators must be punished properly. My constituents and I certainly do not want to see a 50% reduction in sentences in exchange for early guilty pleas by those who have committed violent crimes, and I sincerely hope that the Government will drop their plans as soon as possible.

6.44 pm

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I have been a Member of Parliament for a year, but I do not think that I have ever smelt such rank political hypocrisy as that which is emanating from the Opposition Benches. I practised as a criminal barrister for 16 years, just a little longer than the tenure of the last Government. During those 16 years, and particularly during my 13 years at the criminal Bar, I saw almost daily the harsh reality of their sentencing policy, a policy which led to the present chaotic state of our prisons and which neither added up nor delivered all that they claimed it would do.