Reply from the Home Secretary, the Rt
Hon. David Blunkett MP
Thank you for your letter of 16 June concerning the
composition and functions of the Sentencing Guidelines Council,
as laid out in clauses 160 to 166 of the Criminal Justice Bill.
As you will know, the background to the clauses as
they are now is the concern which was raised in the House of Commons
that there should be a greater role both for Parliament and the
wider community in the production of sentencing guidelines. Following
the debate in the Standing Committee on the Bill (21st and 22nd
sittings, Thursday 6 February), the Government decided that the
best way to meet these concerns would be to widen the composition
of the Council. The proposals in clause 160 are aimed at ensuring
that the Council will include people involved in the key areas
associated with sentencing and the implementation of sentencing
decisions. We believe that this will add enormous value to the
It is not unprecedented for civil servants to sit
on bodies that are classified as independent. It is often done
because they can provide expertise in practical considerations
which are relevant. In this instance they could inform discussion
with knowledge, for instance of new forms of non-custodial penalties.
In addition, it is proper for the Council to be aware of sentencing
policy in relation to areas under discussion to inform the debate
without in any way exerting pressure on the Council. The position
here is no different from that for all the members who will sit
in their own right not as representatives of their organisations,
but will each bring their own perspective, knowledge and insight
The Council's independence will be protected by its
composition. It will be chaired by the Lord Chief Justice and
will have seven judicial members as well as five non-judicial
members. We have in mind that only one of these - the one with
experience of sentencing policy and the administration of sentences,
at 160(4)(e) - will be a civil servant.
We will be making it clear that the non-judicial
members, including the civil servant member, will be acting in
their own right rather than as representatives of their organisations.
They are being appointed for the expertise they bring, not to
consult within their organisation and convey views. This is underlined
by the fact that no substitute will be able to attend meetings
in their place.
The Judicial Studies Board, while not a statutory
body, is an independent body with some analogies. Its members
are appointed by the Lord Chancellor. Its independence is set
out in its Memorandum of Understanding. Its function is to decide
and, in many cases, to provide, the training required by judges.
It has civil servants on both its main board and its sub-committees.
This is a long-standing arrangement which the judiciary have
In response to your second question concerning the
relationship between the Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel,
we do believe that both bodies are needed. The SAP will continue
its present role - though its remit has been expanded to cover
all offences and general matters affecting sentencing - of providing
advice on proposed guidelines, informed by research and a thorough
consultation. It will provide this advice direct to the Council,
which will be the body responsible for taking the final decision
on draft guidelines, of issuing them for consultation in draft,
and finally of publishing them. These I believe are quite distinct
roles. The SAP will inform the decisions of the Council, who
will not have the time nor the capacity to undertake the work
themselves, but the Council will be the decision-maker.
As regards your third question, we intend to repeal
sections 80 and 81 of the Crime & Disorder Act 1998 which
confers statutory functions on the Court of Appeal in relation
to sentencing guidelines, when the Sentencing Guidelines Council
is constituted. However, we have made transitional provision
to ensure the continuing validity of existing guidelines issued
by the Court of Appeal, until the SGC is in a position to issue
its own guidelines. In drafting its guidelines, the Council will
clearly take into account any existing guidelines in relevant
areas issued by the Court of Appeal. Under the new arrangements,
the Courts will be required to take into account the guidelines
issued by the SGC (which will apply to all criminal courts).
However we do recognise that the role of the Court of Appeal (and
the House of Lords) in interpreting and re-interpreting the law
may well require the Council to respond to judgements with new
or revised guidelines.
Finally, we do strongly believe that the work of
the Council will meet the public interest in sentencing policies.
One of the key aims of our sentencing reforms is to increase
the transparency of sentencing - both of the sentencing process
and the sentences themselves. The current sentencing framework
is relatively inaccessible: the result of a large volume of statutes
(at least eight since 1991) most of which amend each other, and
an equally large volume of case law. On top of this, an interested
enquirer would be directed to the Magistrates' Courts Sentencing
Guidelines. The Council will be responsible for drafting what
will eventually be a consolidated set of sentencing guidelines
applicable to all criminal courts. They will be required to publish
these guidelines in a way which is transparent and accessible
to the public. They will also be required to publish an annual
report, giving details of their activities during the year. Their
guidelines will have been informed by a wide-ranging consultation
- first in the SAP's initial consideration of the matter (they
often consult the views of the public) and then by the Council
itself who will be consulting Parliament, via the mechanism of
the Home Affairs Select Committee. We do not therefore anticipate
- as the proposals currently stand - that the creation of the
Council will affect the legislative work of Parliament.
I hope that this is helpful, and look forward to
receiving your report on this matter.
24 June 2003