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Lord Goodhart: I support the amendment. As many Members of the Committee have said, the criminal justice system over the past few years has become far too politicised. As my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford said, in recent years and particularly in the run-up to the last election, both the Government and the Opposition parties were bidding against each other to see who could take the most repressive attitude towards crime. What is remarkable and very gratifying

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indeed is that an entirely opposite attitude has been taken on this occasion by everyone who has spoken in this debate from all parties and from the Cross Benches.

One result of the politicisation, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, pointed out, is that there has been a mass of legislation. Since 1990 we have had, among other Acts, the Criminal Justice Act 1991, the Criminal Justice Act 1993, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, all of them major pieces of legislation, now followed by this Bill, which is of at least equal significance.

This legislation concerns substantive law; the investigation of crime; the prosecution process and sentencing. But the legislation notably lacks consistency and a basic philosophy throughout. Of course, criminal justice is in a sense a political matter. The prevention and prosecution of crime and the conduct of the penal system are among the most important responsibilities of government. But criminal justice does not need to be the political battleground to the extent that it has. There is a clear need here to lower the temperature.

We now have a standing Civil Justice Council to oversee the important programme of the reform of civil procedure instigated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Justice Woolf. Membership of that committee was announced in a Written Answer by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor last week. But surely there is a need at least as great to have a standing council on criminal justice as an authoritative and expert body to advise the Secretary of State. By advising the Secretary of State it will be advising the public. Above all, what is needed here is a better-informed public. I believe that this amendment will go a long way towards achieving that result.

Lord Henley: I feel that I shall appear to be like a character in a Bateman cartoon, as the man who spoke against the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ackner. I hope that I will have some support from the noble Lord, Lord Williams, when he responds and that I may offer him a degree of support in advance. Whether the noble Lord wants that support is another matter. He seemed to deal perfectly adequately with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, just as he dealt last week, with the utmost skill, with the amendment of my noble friend, Lord Windlesham.

Considering the eminence of all who have spoken--particularly my noble and learned friends--I speak with considerable diffidence in begging to differ on this amendment. I am filled with alarm by the very idea that party politics should be taken out of criminal justice and that it should merely be left to the consideration of the great and the good--which is, in effect, what the amendment seeks to do. We are told that the amendment's purpose is to establish a standing advisory council to inform the public. It looks much more like an attempt to imprison and impose constraints on the Home Secretary when he comes to make policy. The idea that such matters are best addressed by a council, not by democratic processes, is fundamentally wrong. They

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should be a matter for the Home Secretary, who is answerable to Parliament and responsible to the electorate. It ought to be for him to address policy and for that policy to be argued out in Parliament.

No one can argue that such matters do not receive sufficient time to be argued in Parliament. We have debated this Bill alone over some five days in Committee, and I believe that the Minister and others of your Lordships agree that it has not been debated in a party political manner. Noble Lords in all parts of the House have spoken. No support for the line I am taking has come from the Government Benches but I look forward to hearing from the Minister in due course.

Lord Renton: I invite my noble friend not to overlook that what is proposed is purely an advisory council. The Home Secretary will have to consider its advice, which he may or may not accept. In any event, the democratic process will operate and the two Houses of Parliament will have the last word.

Lord Henley: I accept that is what the amendment sets out but neither the Minister nor myself are naive. I know exactly how a council of this sort will work and the constraints that it will impose on the Home Secretary. I speak from experience when I say that we have seen much the same in the realm of social security. The Minister will know of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which imposes constraints. It might be that there are better arguments for such a body in that case but it imposes constraints on what it is possible for the Secretary of State for Social Security to do. An amendment of this kind would impose just such constraints on the Home Secretary and limit what he could do. Once the council has pronounced on such and such a matter, it will be much harder to argue against it. We will be told that the matter has been considered a great deal by experts. The views of the people--about whom we hear so much from the new Labour Government--could be ignored.

The amendment proposes to establish a quango of the sort that was set up in the mid-1960s and which was very sensibly removed in 1980--to which my noble friend Lord Hurd referred. I do not think that this is the right moment to bring back a quango of that sort. I hope that the Minister will resist the blandishments of all who have spoken in favour of the amendment.

Baroness David: I have been provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to speak. I do not believe that any constraints would be imposed by the amendment. Such an advisory council might lead to ideas, as did the one before it. The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and others, mentioned community service and suspended sentences. I strongly support the amendment and hope that my noble friend the Minister will do the same.

6.15 p.m.

Viscount Tenby: I rise extremely briefly--my noble friend Lady David has done this for me--to redress the balance yet again. I warmly support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend, Lord Ackner. The compelling case for such an advisory council has

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been devastatingly made by distinguished lawyers in all parts of the House. It may be thought presumptuous of me to attach myself to their coat-tails. My only excuse for doing so is that I may in some small part be able to speak for the lower courts, in which I have had the honour to serve for a number of years.

Anyone sitting as a magistrate in the 1980s and 1990s will have been appalled by the changes in sentencing policy that went on during that period, as a direct result of what was seen by political parties to be beneficial to their interests at any particular time. Quite apart from the moral and judicial damage those parties caused throughout the legal system, and the lack of any identifiable long-term strategy in sentencing matters, the burden on--what are, when all is said and done--part-time contributors to the legal system was substantial.

Training programmes for one year were completely overturned by what took place 12 months later. As the prayer book says, there was no health in it. We must resist all attempts to go down a path where today's fashion dictates tomorrow's sentencing policies. That would be quite wrong. Let us step back and take a long, dispassionate and hard look at crime in all its multifarious aspects and plan an imaginative and decent strategy for the 21st century. Where better to begin than with the standing advisory council suggested by my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: This area of crime and punishment and how to deal with it is central to most people's conscious existence. Whatever we do, we must take public opinion with us and we must earn and maintain confidence and trust in the judiciary, criminal justice system and penal system.

It is right that the Government should have available to them well-informed advice to inform and underpin their policies. There is nothing between us on that. The previous organisation, which lasted from 1966 to 1980, did good work. As the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, may have hinted, it was not always the most speedy of mechanisms because sometimes it took three or four years to prepare its reports--but it did good work.

The real question on which the noble and learned Lord's amendment requires us to focus is how best to ensure that the Government are provided with useful and appropriate advice. He believes that the re-establishment of something like the former standing advisory council--although, I agree, with a different remit--is the answer. That is one possibility and one that needs to be thought through carefully.

Quite a lot has changed since 1980. The Government have a lot of post-1980 sources of advice. The Criminal Justice Consultative Council has representatives of the criminal justice system and is usefully underpinned by local area committees made up of local practitioners. The Trial Issues Group deals with improving the way in which the criminal justice process works and gives practical advice to the Government. The Law Commission, to which I willingly pay tribute, does masterly work on law reform.

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We also have reports--we have dealt with one in a little detail this afternoon--from the Chief Inspector of Prisons and from the Chief Inspector of Probation. As has been said, under this Bill we want to establish a youth justice board (Clause 32) which will advise the Home Secretary on the operation of the youth justice system, and in Clause 67 we propose a sentencing advisory panel. We also have reports from the Institute of Criminology; research papers from universities; international research material; and collation and co-ordination of research and statistical work in the Home Office itself.

There are, therefore, various mechanisms from which we can draw useful benefit. The real question is: would an advisory council of the sort proposed give further value? If it would, it is clearly worth considering, but not on the basis of simply looking to the past for solutions without being sure that they take proper account of more recent developments.

The noble and learned Lord's amendment indicates that the advisory council might provide advice to the sentencing advisory panel. It is probable that those who serve on both are likely to have much the same background. Will there be virtue in that particular structure? It seems to me that if an advisory council is to be of benefit, it is important to ensure that it has clear terms of reference and does not simply replicate existing sources of advice. Should it have a standing brief or should it be available to offer advice on issues specifically directed to it? Should its membership be fixed? Should it have the opportunity to co-opt further members on an ad hoc basis who might have a particular background and particular expertise to help it to consider specific issues? In the Government's view, all those matters deserve further thought. We would also have to decide whether the body should be statutory or non-statutory. I appreciate that the present form of the amendment indicates a statutory basis, unlike the former advisory council.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice put forward his carefully reasoned remarks which were intended to be constructive and helpful. Without, I hope, appearing presumptuous, I take his remarks entirely in that spirit and I know that the Home Secretary is of the same view.

There are a number of issues here which are worthy of further consideration and which would benefit from further discussion. Therefore, despite the criticisms made of my lack of openness, on this occasion the recidivist repents in part. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, will appreciate, I do not make any promises. I hope that he will accept that we have attended to all the speeches that have been made this afternoon. On the basis of what I have said, with no promise but with the undertaking that I have given that we take your Lordships' observations seriously, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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