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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, this side of the House supported the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, when he moved the amendment during the passage of the Bill. Nothing has changed that would convince me otherwise. He will continue to receive that support.
Despite reading Hansard of another place, it is unclear why the clause was removed. It is deeply regrettable that the Government have not acceded to the weight of support from Members of all parties in this House for a standing advisory council. The idea also had widespread backing from external organisations involved in penal affairs and criminal justice.
In recent years there have been some regrettable instances in which policies on crime and the penal system have appeared to be driven by political opportunism and other considerations. A notable example was the "prison works" policy. We are seeing today in this country the result of that policy with one of the highest ever prison populations.
A standing advisory committee would provide an independent, expert and non-partisan voice, drawing on the expertise of a range of agencies and individuals involved in criminal justice and could be an important influence in producing balanced and practical policies.
We are asking for a sensible government carefully to weigh up any recommendation which comes from a source such as a standing advisory council. They do not have to accept everything. Despite the Government's protestation, the provision will not delay any reforms. The Government would be free to enact whatever reforms they see fit to introduce. They do not have to wait for the views of the advisory council. However, a regular flow of considered advice and proposals from such a body would assist a reasonable, listening government to produce practical policies to reduce crime and do justice to both victims and offenders.
The Government's main counter-argument--it was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in earlier debates in this House--is that they have many other sources of advice. We welcome that. They also have advice, including committees and task forces, which they establish to advise on specific areas of policies--a welcome sign indeed. It is true to say that there have been some good examples of such groups. I refer, for example, to the Home Secretary's task force on new justice, and the working group on vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. All have done interesting and valuable work.
But such groups are established by the Government to decide only on issues about which they want advice. That happens often because of immediate, short-term considerations. None has an overall, broad responsibility for examining the criminal justice system and the penal system as a total. It is therefore important that there are mechanisms to ensure a regular flow of advice and accommodation to the Government on the operation of criminal justice and the penal system, including advice on issues of great importance to those working in the field but which may not be high on the Government's list of immediate practical imperatives.
I do not seek to support a Division of this House on this matter. However, I wish to make it clear that we on this side of the House will continue to harass the Government until such time such a body is in being. I believe that the way in which matters of criminal justice have been implemented in the past is far too important to be left simply in the hands of the Home Office.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, future historians examining the weakness of the Blair Government may come to the conclusion that their primary weakness was an unwillingness to listen to advice from the people best qualified to give it. It would seem to an ordinary layman such as myself that if the leaders of the legal profession overwhelmingly suggest that a body of the kind proposed would be of value in a very important aspect of our national life, a wise government would take that into account. I am not surprised that they do not do so. When they legislate on universities, they ignore the
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I wish to observe to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that the maxim that power is delightful and absolute power absolutely delightful is not confined to a Labour Government, nor to a Conservative Government, nor, I dare say, to a Liberal Democrat Government. It is a universal maxim of those who exercise power.
Twenty five years ago, I had the privilege of working as special adviser to the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, for two years. Much as I admired his great wisdom and that of his senior advisers, I became completely convinced of the need for an independent standing advisory council on penal reform for the reasons cogently expressed today by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and my noble friend Lord Dholakia.
For those reasons, which I shall not repeat, it is extremely important for a Home Secretary, his Ministers and senior advisers to have access to the best advice they can obtain from a wholly independent body of well-informed specialist advisers. They do not have to take the advice, but there is nothing they need fear in obtaining it.
I therefore believe that the right course to take is to urge the Government to think again and hope that it does not become necessary to ask another place to think again. Unlike others on my Benches, such is the strength of my feeling on the matter that if it were pressed to a Division--I hope that that will not be the case because I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the situation--I should have no alternative but to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, this is the third time I have tried to explain why the Government do not want to see the re-establishment of a standing advisory council of the type specified by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, sitting in her place. As she formerly had responsibility for Home Office matters, we can respectfully agree, one with the other, that the one thing one does not lack in the Home Office on any occasion of this kind is an abundance of advice. Often there is too much of it.
I shall be as brief as I can because I know that other issues of great importance are to be discussed later. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, specified a large volume of advice which would have been given to the Government had such a body been set up. He specified it dot, comma, colon and semi-colon. By definition, the advice which the noble and learned Lord believes the body would have provided is already available.
That was not always the case with the body which is now the subject of dewy-eyed nostalgia in your Lordships' House. According to our records, the council produced nine reports in all. It took about two years to produce most of them and it produced only one between 1970 and 1977. If one wants to talk about reports which may attract public support, perhaps I may indicate what was contained in its last report (February 1978) on sentences of imprisonment. I address my remarks in particular to the need to obtain public support for penal policy. That report recommended the dramatic reduction of the maximum penalty for offences such as rape and buggery with a child under the age of 16, unlawful sexual intercourse, incest with a girl under 13, wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm and burglary. Curiously, those recommendations were not accepted by the government of the day.
Therefore, simply having a specialist body will not necessarily bring about the desired conclusion to which the noble and learned Lord referred. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly--I do not know whether it was coincidental--the then Home Secretary, now the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, decided not to reappoint the body in January 1980. Since that time it has had no existence.
I revert to the noble Lord's comment that nothing has changed. That is not so. Yesterday we announced the crime reduction strategy. That is based for the first time on comprehensive research evidence of what actually works. It was produced by Mr. Nuttall, who works in the Research and Statistics Directorate of the Home Office. They are independent conclusions. I say with great respect that it is worth reading that volume to see what quality of expertise is presently available.
We simply do not see the advantage of resurrecting this body. We can obtain objective and informed advice which is provided in a more flexible and responsive way. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, indicated that he had severe doubts about the practical utility of such a body, particularly bearing in mind his valid point that at the end of the day it is for the Government to take responsibility for penal and criminal policy. If it is needed, plenty of advice is available.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the Criminal Justice Consultative Council, presently chaired by Lord Justice Rose. We believe that there is virtue in amending its terms of reference. We are in discussion about amendment. One that we have in mind is along the lines of,
The noble and learned Lord referred to experience abroad. We are aware of that. We know the sentencing regimes in the countries he mentioned. One needs only to read any journal from any institute of criminology to have ready access to such information. We have the Trial Issues Group and reports from Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation. I do not believe that the present chief inspector or his immediate predecessor could have been said to lack independence--perhaps to the occasional intense displeasure of some people in the Home Office--or an independent view, or the determination to give advice whether it is welcome or not.
We have the Law Commission, which has particular expertise in the substantive law, and I pay all credit to its work. As regards efficiency and effectiveness, we have the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission. As a result of this Bill, we shall have the sentencing advisory panel. Of course it operates within the structure of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, but those decisions are published and readily available to those who deal with these matters within the Home Office. We now have the Standing Committee on Home Affairs in another place. It is a new committee which goes about its work in an extremely effective way. Therefore, we shall have careful research produced by an authoritative body.
We believe that ample advice is available. The estimates show that it will cost not far short of £500,000 a year to operate a standing council. We have to look for added public value, to use the current jargon. With the best will in the world, and listening carefully to everything that has been said on so many occasions and in such detail, we do not believe that there is added public value in investing another £0.5 million in another body when we already have so much advice available to us.
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