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Lord Dholakia: I have just returned from a conference in Swindon of the Criminal Justice Consultative Council. The conference was very much devoted to race issues. One of my concerns is the victims within the criminal justice system, particularly those in ethnic minority communities. At Second Reading I said that 16 to 17 per cent. of the prison population consisted of black people and that 24 per cent. (or one in four) of female prisoners were black. A number of studies, including one by the department of criminology at the University of Oxford, illustrate discrepancies in the sentencing of black people. I ask the Minister to ensure that when this matter is considered people from the ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system are represented in the membership of the advisory panel. I also note that the Probation Service is omitted and suggest that that should be put right.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am grateful for the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, about ethnic minorities and victims. The panel will have certain members but it will consult people before it expresses its views to the Court of Appeal about the guidelines that it proposes. I cannot say at the moment whether these particular ideas will be taken on board, but I can assure the noble Lord that they will be considered. However, for the reasons that I have given I believe that it is wrong at this stage to be too prescriptive about both the panel and the consultees. The consultees may vary from case to case, but I assure the noble Lord that his remarks will be taken into account.

Lord Henley: I am grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I agree that my group

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does not include those he mentioned. One could go on lengthening the list so that it becomes almost as long as one's arm. I do not recommend that approach, as I hope I made clear in moving the amendment. I do not believe that one should set out a prescriptive list. For that reason, therefore, I am very grateful for the explanation that the noble and learned Lord has given about the consideration that will be given to this matter when the panel is set up. I am entirely satisfied that all those who should be included will be included or, if they are not included, that they will certainly be consulted by the panel as and when appropriate. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 258C:


Page 53, line 36, at end insert--
("( ) The Panel may at any time, and shall if directed to do so by the Lord Chancellor, propose to him that guidelines for the sentencing of offenders by magistrates' courts be framed for any category of summary or either-way offence.").

The noble Lord said: This replaces an amendment I originally tabled as Amendment No. 257A which is now withdrawn. I am advised that it is possibly a better attempt to achieve what I tried to achieve in the earlier amendment. I daresay that again it will be found not to be the best way of dealing with the matter, but no doubt I can have advice from noble Lords when they respond.

The amendment seeks to achieve a greater degree of consistency in sentencing in magistrates' courts--something which, I understand, is dealt with in other courts by the sentencing advisory panel. My noble friend Lady Anelay will know from her personal experience that there is considerable inconsistency from one court to another. For example, someone may be sentenced in magistrates' court A for a serious road traffic offence and told in no uncertain terms by the Bench that, if he appears again before them having committed a similar offence, he will definitely lose his licence for six months or a year, but when, having repeated the offence, he appears before another magistrates' court 100 miles away, he is not dealt with appropriately. The original warning will therefore have had no effect and no meaning whatsoever.

The amendment will introduce greater consistency to the magistrates' courts while ensuring that the courts still have discretion to act as they wish, so they are not bound to follow the advice absolutely. It is important that they should have that discretion but there should also be a degree of consistency. I beg to move.

Viscount Tenby: I support the principle of the amendment in trying to achieve an overall standard throughout sentencing. It is undoubtedly a scandal that, according to various statistics, a person has a far greater chance of going to prison if he appears before court A for a shoplifting offence than if he appears before court C in another part of the country, where he may have his wrist slapped and get away with a small fine. That is clearly unacceptable. In the past, people have been

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inclined to be indulgent about the situation, saying that it is funny and quaint. I do not find it so. There is a great deal to be said for uniformity, at least in principle.

However, noble Lords, particularly those who are involved in these matters, know that there are regional peculiarities and differences. If a certain area is suffering from a plague of offences arising from football hooliganism, then one might be more severe in sentencing than if it were a rare occurrence. I understand the difficulties facing those who are trying to frame a workable amendment, but the principle is a good one.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I fully understand the principle underlying the noble Lord's amendment, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, has spoken so eloquently. In the Bill, the sentencing guidelines drawn up by the Court of Appeal would cover indictable-only offences, those offences which can only be tried in the Crown Court, or offences that are triable each way, in a Crown Court or a magistrates' court. They would not apply to summary-only offences which can only be tried in the magistrates' courts. The present position is that guidelines for summary offences are drawn up by the Magistrates' Association.

When we developed our proposals, we specifically considered the position of the magistrates' court and consulted the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice. His view was that it would be inappropriate for the Court of Appeal to take on this role and disrupt the current arrangements, given that summary-only offences almost never came before that court. We agreed with that view and concluded that it would be better to retain the existing position whereby the Magistrates' Association, which has great experience in this area, draws up such guidelines. It is worth underlining that, as the Bill is drafted, the Sentencing Advisory Panel advises the Court of Appeal and no other body, and it is not clear from the amendment--although I do not take this as a major point--who is supposed to produce the guidelines envisaged by the amendment.

Noble Lords might say that we should provide for the Sentencing Advisory Panel to have a role in advising the Magistrates' Association in these matters, but the Magistrates' Association is a non-statutory body and it would therefore be difficult to frame statutory responsibilities around it. In practice, the Magistrates' Association may wish, when considering guidelines for magistrates' courts, to have regard to the advice produced by the panel and the guidelines produced by the Court of Appeal. I am sure that fruitful discussions could take place between the two bodies: indeed, the Magistrates' Association is likely to be one of the bodies which the panel must consult when consultees are identified.

I fear that it is right to leave matters on that basis. These provisions are not intended to undermine the position of the Magistrates' Association in this regard, and it is very difficult to incorporate the Sentencing Advisory Panel by statute in relation to the Magistrates' Association. I hope the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Henley: The noble and learned Lord is relatively sympathetic. I accept that the amendment is

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probably defective in some way but the noble and learned Lord did not offer a solution to deal with the problem of inconsistency which everyone, including the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, recognises.

Can the noble and learned Lord and his colleagues in the Home Office between now and Report give some little consideration to whether there is not a measure that one could introduce which might go some way towards achieving what I wish to achieve; or is he saying that he regrets that there is very little that can be done?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am saying that I regret that there is very little that can be done through the mechanism that is being proposed or any other mechanism that one can think of in relation to the clause. The reason for that is that the Sentencing Advisory Panel is there to advise the Court of Appeal. We consulted the Lord Chief Justice and he has said that it is inappropriate to expand the panel's role or to give an increased role to the Court of Appeal.

We have thought carefully about how we can help the magistrates' courts through this mechanism and we have concluded effectively that it cannot be done. I regret it, but I am afraid I cannot give any comfort at all in respect of the amendment. The noble Lord may have to take his medicine now.

Lord Henley: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his openness in offering his regret. I will consider the matter carefully between now and Report and decide whether to come back to it. If not, I will take my medicine like a man. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


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