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Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for her response although I am still not convinced about the illogicality of having the same set of maximum sentences for trafficking all the different classifications of drugs. Of course we accept that drug trafficking is a very serious offence and should be dealt with very seriously, particularly when it concerns class A and B drugs. If we are to have a classification system, it is logical to have a classification of offences and sentences, too. However, I thank the noble Baroness for her response.

Clause 269 agreed to.

Schedule 24 agreed to.

Clause 270 [Increase in penalties for certain driving-related offences causing death]:

Lord Goldsmith moved Amendment No. 219K:

"(4A) Part I of Schedule 1 to the Road Traffic Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (S.I. 1996/1320 (N.I. 10)) (prosecution and punishment of offences) is amended in accordance with subsections (4B) and (4C).
(4B) In the entry relating to Article 9 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (S.I. 1995/2994 (N.I. 18)) (causing death or grievous bodily injury by dangerous driving), in column 4, for "10 years" there is substituted "14 years".
(4C) In the entry relating to Article 14 of that Order (causing death or grievous bodily injury by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs), in column 4, for "10 years" there is substituted "14 years"."

The noble and learned Lord said: Clause 270 increases the penalties available for certain driving offences in England and Wales. Amendment No. 219K, tabled in the name of my noble friend Lady Scotland, makes similar provision for two corresponding offences in Northern Ireland.

The actions of dangerous and irresponsible drivers that result in someone losing a life can be devastating not only for the victims and their families, but for whole communities. Clause 270 proposes an increase in the maximum penalties for offences in England and Wales of causing death by dangerous driving, death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, and aggravated vehicle-taking where as a result of the driving of the vehicle an accident occurs and death results. That provision implements the decision, announced in July 2002 in the Government's report of the review of road traffic penalties, to increase the penalties as soon as an appropriate legislative opportunity arose.

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In Northern Ireland, the communities face the same grave difficulties with road traffic collisions as England and Wales. There is a high degree of concern, as Members of the Committee will know, at the unacceptably high number of deaths on the roads of Northern Ireland. As part of the commitment to improve both road safety and awareness of road safety issues, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has decided to increase the maximum available penalties there from 10 to 14 years for the offences of causing death or grievous bodily injury by dangerous driving, and causing death or grievous bodily injury by careless driving while under the influence of drugs or drink. Those are not exactly equivalent, but cover at least part of the same areas as Clause 270 does in relation to England and Wales.

That will send a clear signal to drivers in Northern Ireland of the seriousness with which the Government regard those types of behaviour, and will raise awareness of the terrible and eminently avoidable consequences. It will also give the judiciary in Northern Ireland wider powers to deal with offenders in a relevant and appropriate manner, allowing them to offer greater protection to the community and to increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 270, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal moved Amendment No. 220:

    After Clause 270, insert the following new clause—

(1) In Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (c. 53) (prosecution and punishment of offences), in the entry relating to section 174 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c. 52) (false statements and withholding material information), for columns (3) and (4) there is substituted—
(a) Summarily (a) 6 months or the statutory maximum or both
(b) On indictment
(b) 2 years or a fine or both."
(2) Section 267(4) (increase in maximum term that may be imposed on summary conviction of offence triable either way) has effect in relation to the entry amended by subsection (1) as it has effect in relation to any other enactment contained in an Act passed before this Act.
(3) This section does not apply in relation to any offence committed before the commencement of this section."

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 221E. Is that right?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The noble Baroness should speak to Amendments Nos. 220 and 256.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The amendments are technical. I am sorry.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is still the Northern Ireland stuff.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I beg the Committee's pardon; I thought that my noble and learned friend the

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Attorney-General had dealt with that. The amendments refer to the fraudulent obtaining of a driving licence—it is all coming back—and knowingly countersigning a false application for a driving licence, which are presently dealt with under Section 174 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. The maximum penalty for each offence is a fine of #2,500. That penalty does not recognise the potential use of the documents as gateways to organised crime and terrorism; rather they concentrate on the financial value of the document.

Amendment No. 220 raises the maximum penalty available to the court for an offence of fraudulently obtaining a driving licence to two years' imprisonment, aligning it with that available for an offence of fraudulently obtaining a passport. Noble Lords will know from earlier debates in other committees how important those issues are and how much use is made of those documents.

That increased penalty will more accurately reflect the reliance placed upon both documents by many organisations as evidence of identity. Fraudulently obtaining either document will incur a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment and will serve as a more effective deterrent than a fine or a short period of detention.

In speaking to the amendment, it would perhaps be convenient to speak also to Amendment No. 256 which would extend that increase in penalty to Scotland. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 271 [Minimum sentence for certain firearms offences]:

[Amendment No. 221 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 221A to 221D had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

On Question, Whether Clause 271 shall be agreed to?

Lord Thomas of Gresford: The removal of the clause would erase the firearms offences. Your Lordships will recall last New Year a terrible and tragic shooting in Birmingham which resulted in the death of two young girls. That was immediately followed by the promulgation of a minimum sentence for firearms offences.

I know the spot; I have seen it. It is close to a club in Birmingham where I was involved in another shooting incident some years ago. A person trod on somebody's foot in a bar and was invited out for a fight. When the other man raised his fists, he shot him. That resulted not in a five-year sentence, but in a very lengthy sentence for attempted murder. Where firearms are used in armed robbery, one would expect a sentence of 10 years. On the other hand, one would expect a sentence of rather less than five years in circumstances, which may well have occurred, where the police burst into a club and a gangster with a gun hands it to his girlfriend, who puts it in her handbag and is therefore in possession of a firearm. For her to serve five years for that momentary possession of a gun would seem to be quite beyond what is required.

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We therefore come back to the problem which has recurred throughout our consideration of the Bill: why must we have minimum sentences? Instead of making a gesture because of a particular incident, why do the Government not rely simply on the sentencing practices of the judiciary, which would give far more than five years in appropriate cases, while in other cases it can easily be envisaged that very much less would be given?

There is an infinite variety. I wonder how many more times I will have to say that. I would be interested to hear the Minister's explanation of why, in this particular case, a minimum sentence is again required.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: As the noble Lord has indicated, Clause 271 provides a mandatory minimum sentence for unauthorised possession of a prohibited firearm. That is a key part of the Government's strategy for tackling gun crime and the gun culture. Overall, gun crime remains relatively low. It makes up 0.4 per cent of all recorded crimes. However, we have seen an unacceptable rise in recent years. The terrible shootings recently in Nottinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Liverpool highlight the growing use of guns in crime. That is a disturbing trend which we are determined to reverse.

In 2001–02, firearms were used in more than 22,000 recorded offences in England and Wales. That is an increase of 27 per cent on the previous year. There were 97 fatalities and 558 serious injuries resulting from crimes that involved firearms.

Most gun crime is still criminal damage caused by air weapons, and the Government are addressing that problem with measures on the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, as your Lordships know. But we are also seeing an unacceptable rise in the use of handguns and light automatic weapons and more and more young people carrying or using imitation weapons to gain respect or intimidate others. In 2001–2, nearly 10,000 recorded crimes involved a firearm other than an air weapon—an increase of 35 per cent on the previous year. Handguns were used in 5,871 crimes—a rise of 46 per cent. Handguns are now used in 58 per cent of armed crime.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asks: why not leave it to the judges? We believe that Parliament has a role to play. Some of this rise is associated with gang culture, which is itself linked to the illegal drug trade. The Government are committed to tackling this, as noble Lords know. We want to deter criminals from using firearms and to ensure they receive appropriately tough sentences on conviction.

Clause 271 inserts a new Section 51A into the Firearms Act 1968, which provides a mandatory minimum sentence for unlawful possession of prohibited firearms. I must stress that this will not affect the maximum sentence in any way. That will stay at 10 years' imprisonment and courts will retain their discretion to impose sentences up to that maximum.

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The minimum sentence will apply to offences under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968. These include unlawful possession of handguns and automatic weapons, which are commonly used by criminals.

The minimum sentence will apply only to persons aged 16 or over at the time the offence was committed. The minimum sentence for persons aged 18 or over (21 or over in Scotland) will be five years' imprisonment. For offenders aged 16 and 17 (between 16 and 20 in Scotland) it will be three years' detention.

We want the minimum sentence to have the widest possible application. A court will be required to impose the minimum sentence in all cases unless there are exceptional circumstances relating to either the offence or the offender which justify not doing so. This exception is aimed at minor regulatory offences, such as where the holder of a firearms certificate inadvertently forgets to renew his authorities or where a war trophy is discovered in a deceased person's effects. The minimum sentence would be disproportionate in such cases. This measure is aimed at criminals who present a risk to public safety.

Public safety must be paramount. The situation that has led to the recent spate of shootings around the country must be met by effective action. Members of the Committee will know that the mean for these possession offences is not as high as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, believes. It is by no means usual to find that an 18-month sentence for these offences is being imposed. We believe that this is an area which we need to address and this is an opportunity to do so. That is why Clause 271 is part of the Bill.

1 a.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I hear what the noble Baroness says. It seems to me that if an 18-month sentence is currently imposed, that is probably about right for the circumstances of the case, whatever it may be. Where criminals use guns, I do not believe that sentences under five years would normally be imposed. Indeed, the apparent draconian nature of the provision is weakened by the possibility of exceptional circumstances reducing the sentence. Not a great deal has therefore been gained. What is lost is the principle that minimum sentences should not be part of our sentencing policy in this country.

I have made my point and I do not propose to press the matter further.

Clause 271 agreed to.

Clauses 272 to 276 agreed to.

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