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Lord Monson: My Lords, in Committee I suggested that it was somewhat ironic that the Labour Party (which all through the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s constantly castigated the Conservatives for introducing or advocating ever-higher maximum sentences, maintaining instead that what deters criminals is not higher sentences, but the near-certainty of detection) now seems to be donning some of the Conservatives' clothes with regard to sentencing policy. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, a five-year maximum seems ridiculously high for someone who contravenes an antisocial behaviour order. I know that we shall be told that a five-year sentence is only a maximum and that in practice that sentence may never be imposed--that is true--but the maximum is nevertheless a marker and, as such, is likely to lead to higher average sentences than would otherwise be the case. For that reason, I warmly support Amendment No. 9.
I was tempted to add my name also to Amendment No. 13--I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, spoke to this amendment although it has been grouped with Amendment No. 9--as, in most cases, a five-year maximum would, in my view, be excessively high for breach of a sex offender order. We must remember that many sex offences consist of nothing much more serious than an "Oval Office-style grope", so to speak. However, as a small proportion of past offenders were convicted of very much more serious offences, it would perhaps be dangerous to lower the maximum, so I am afraid that I cannot support Amendment No. 13.
Lord Henderson of Brompton: My Lords, I support the amendment. Unfortunately, I was not present for Committee stage, but I have read what went on. I think that this reduction is right. It happens to be the same as the two-year sentence for contempt of court. I believe that the amendment before the Committee related to that. It is right to have the same maximum here. Clearly,
Apart from anything else, I find the five-year maximum extraordinary. I cannot imagine that any Labour Minister would feel it right to put on the statute book a maximum sentence of five years, especially if that will increase the number of prisoners. I have heard the noble Lord who is going to reply on this amendment saying--no doubt gently but teasing the Opposition--that the Labour Party is pure and clean and has no responsibility for the fact that there are 60,000 prisoners in our prisons; that since this Government have been in office, between 5,000 and 6,000 more have been added to the prison population; and that that is only another 10 per cent.--a mere trifle. However, provisions such as this, which seek to impose five-year sentences for comparatively minor trouble, will bring us up to the 100,000 prisoner mark--and it will be the Government who are responsible for that, not the Opposition.
I believe that the Government owe it to the House to explain why they have specified a high maximum sentence for a comparatively minor offence. I am not saying that it is not an offence, because it is a substantial offence, but it is not the greatest of offences. It is not as serious an offence as, for example, grievous bodily harm.
We were reminded a short time ago that a week is a long time in politics. It certainly can be sometimes. I believe that a week in prison is a long time and that it would do sentencers and Front-Benchers a great deal of good if they spent a week in prison so that they would know how long such a sentence really is. They would find it extremely upsetting. Even an introduction to prison is bad enough. I believe that in the majority of cases prison sentences should be considered in terms of weeks or even months, but not in terms of years. I am very sorry that this Government of all governments should seek to push through this provision. I very much hope that they will think again and indicate that at Third Reading they may relent.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the maximum sentence for contempt of court, to which I referred at Committee stage. My noble friend Lord Goodhart also referred to it a moment ago. Your Lordships will recall that, in addition to the two-year maximum sentence for contempt of court for breach of a court order, there is a provision in the prison rules that the person who suffers imprisonment as a result of the contempt is kept separate and apart from prisoners who are convicted of ordinary crimes in the criminal courts. I urged the Government to accept that that was the proper way of dealing with this matter. That argument was not accepted and we have not persisted in it. However, we persist in relation to the five-year maximum sentence.
It is of interest that on Friday last a sentencing conference took place in Cardiff. The nature of that conference will be familiar to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. The morning was spent discussing sentencing. There was discussion of various sentences for serious crimes in the region of two to four years both at first instance and in the Court of Appeal. Following lunch, we were addressed by the Minister in the other place, Mr. Alun Michael. I put to him the question that I put to the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I asked what possible set of circumstances he could envisage to justify anything approaching a five-year sentence for breach of an antisocial behaviour order when another more serious crime had not been committed. Although some explanation was provided, that explanation was not satisfactory either to me or to the professional judges with whom I later conversed. The idea that breach an order of this kind should be placed above various other serious offences was one which the professional judges simply could not accept.
The only justification put forward for the five-year maximum is that that was the maximum sentence imposed in the dying days of the previous government under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. We opposed the maximum sentence in that Act. It is sad to see a Labour Government repeating the same error.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not intend to make a Second Reading or Committee speech. To look at each particular component of this Bill as though it stands entirely alone is perhaps a fallacious approach. We have proposed a regime that is intended to stop young offenders from offending at a very young age. The components of that regime are to assist young offenders and prevent continuing crime. But if in this context a crime has been committed we must look at what the penalty should be.
I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, that these are comparatively minor troubles. They are not if one is at the receiving end of them. I understand the concerns of noble Lords in relation to antisocial behaviour. I make two points. First, it is a maximum penalty only and need not be applied by the courts, and it will be subject to appeal in the usual way. Secondly, we believe that it will be used rarely but that its existence is necessary to show how seriously the community regards this kind of behaviour, which often goes unpunished, which means that at the moment the community is unprotected. There may be occasions when it is appropriate: continuing or escalating serious antisocial behaviour, possibly in a racist context or possibly not, in spite of warnings that action will be taken for a breach, or even continuing actions by way of breach while the action for the original breach is before the court.
I stress that this is a maximum penalty and it does not have to be used. We believe that it has the virtue of being there to indicate that in the gravest, grossest circumstances that is the penalty which is available. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has indicated, it is the maximum penalty--I know that he disagrees with it--for protection against harassment. Perhaps it is difficult for some of us who have not been at the receiving end of continued antisocial conduct to realise how it can grievously wound an individual's entitlement to live a reasonably calm and ordered existence without constant aggressive action by others.
I turn to sex offender orders. As indicated earlier by the noble Lord who spoke to this matter, Amendment No. 13 is grouped with Amendment No. 9. We believe that breach of a sex offender order without reasonable excuse is a serious matter. We all know the dangers of it. We know the concerns of parents and those who have to care for small children. I repeat that five years is the maximum penalty. The courts can impose a lighter sentence, and that is a matter for their discretion. There may be some circumstances in which five years is the right sentence. We do not believe that we should remove the options where they are justified.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, will acquit me of discourtesy if I do not respond to his wider views on sentencing generally. With great respect to him, I believe that that may be part of another debate on another occasion. We cannot accept these amendments.
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