Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill: 29th June 2011

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Someone who breaches bail commits a criminal offence and can therefore, and usually does, receive a custodial sentence, especially if they did not attend court when they should have.

Mr Clarke
I am grateful. My hon. Friend has been in practice much more recently than the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) or I have. We will doubtless continue to study this after the debate.

Anna Soubry
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Straw
I am afraid that I have had my ration of interventions.

Anna Soubry
Will my hon. Friend please understand this? When someone is subject to an IPP, they have no knowledge about when they will be released. Does he know that they can be released only when they are deemed no longer to be a risk to society? A relatively small number of people have been released and we can assume that they were released only because they were no longer deemed a risk to society. The reason for that is that they have been on the sort of courses that other people on IPPs have not had the benefit of. The lack of courses is the real problem.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
Order. May I ask for shorter interventions, because many Members wish to speak and I want to try to get everyone in?

Philip Davies
My hon. Friend is right that people are released only when it is safe to release them. My constituents think that it is rather a good thing that people are released from prison only when it is safe to let the out. I am all for that, unlike the Lord Chancellor.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I would like to speak about the criminal justice system and our sentencing policy as reflected in the Bill. I declare my interest: I practised as a criminal barrister for some 16 years before being elected to the House.

If there was ever a man without a plan, it was the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). He and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and, indeed, many other Opposition Members really should hang their heads in shame. After 13 years of a Labour Government, we are faced with a legacy of complete failure in the criminal justice system. Yet again, rather like the deficit, it falls on this Government to clear up the mess left by Labour.
 
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
Does the hon. Lady not accept that crime fell by 43% under the previous Government? As a criminal barrister, she really ought to acknowledge that fact.

Anna Soubry
I am afraid that I do not accept that figure. I do not think that things are as simple as that. For example, as the Lord Chancellor explained, the theft statistics have fallen because of the protection that is now afforded to motor vehicles. Antisocial behaviour is not a recordable offence. I know from my own experiences in Nottinghamshire that the police are almost bending over backwards not to record criminal activities as recordable offences. So I cast real doubt on those statistics.

The hon. Gentleman talks about statistics, so let us listen to those on the legacy that we have inherited. Our prisons are full to bursting. Reoffending grew under Labour to 61.1% for offenders who serve short sentences. Half of adults leaving jail are reconvicted within a year, and 74% of young people sentenced to youth custody and 68% of young people on community sentences reoffend within a year. Those are the damning statistics. That is the legacy, and that is the reality.

We face other realities as we approach those difficulties. Prisons are awash with drugs. How many people are astounded to hear that there are things called drug-free wings? Hon. Members might suppose that all our jails should be free of drugs, but unfortunately they are not. ​Some people actually turn for the first time to class A drugs because they are in custody. I know from my experience of the people whom I represented that not only are drugs freely available in prisons, but they are often cheaper on the inside than out on the street. That is the legacy that we inherit.

Too many of our prisoners languish in 23-hour bang-up, because they cannot get on to courses and no work for them is available. The Bill specifically addresses such difficulties and issues, and I want to herald the proposals and want them to triumph. That will mean that people in prison will actually work. They will earn money that will go back to the people who are the victims of the crime. We are introducing good and right measures that will go a long way to ensure that prison works. At the moment, prison does not work. That is why we have those reoffending rates, why prisons are awash with drugs and why so many prisoners are on 23-hour bang-up.

We must not take a simplistic and broad-brush approach to sentencing. With great respect to many hon. Members, that is, unfortunately, what they do. The Bill achieves a difficult and delicate balance: it recognises the need to reform, but it does so within the financial restrictions and realities that this nation faces. Those who say simply, “Bang ’em all up and throw away the key,” fail then to say how much that would cost and how on earth we would pay for it.

The Bill recognises the failures of too many short-term sentences, as well as the fact that some people need to spend longer in prison. We are now considering the reform of indeterminate sentences for public protection. The last Government changed the distinction between short and long-term imprisonment, which fell at four years. Under their legislation, there was no such distinction. Those who got four years served three quarters of their sentence; those who got less than four years served half. Labour abolished that, so that all prisoners on determinate sentences were automatically released halfway through. We are now considering reforming imprisonment for public protection so that the most serious offenders return to serving three quarters of their sentence. We should welcome the measures, as I certainly do.

I am grateful that the Government have listened and consulted, especially among those of us who have only recently returned from the front line of the criminal justice system. I welcome the fact that we will not increase the amount of discount for a guilty plea to 50%. I spoke out against that without any difficulty. I urge the Government to go further and consider freeing our judges so that there is no mandatory figure. In some cases, a discount of more than 50% is needed and would be welcomed, while in other cases, there should be no discount however early a plea is entered. My message to the Government is to free our judges.

I know that many Government and Opposition Members have concerns about legal aid. I urge the Government to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society continue to have access to legal aid, especially women, who might be abandoned by feckless and adulterous husbands or partners who leave them penniless while themselves remaining in funds. Such women will not have access to legal aid to ensure that they are properly sorted out in the proceedings on divorce and ancillary relief for them and their children. We must protect them.​

I am afraid that the clock is against me; I wanted to talk about IPPs. I welcome the Government’s proposals and I look forward to the consultation. I also put in a quick plug for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who is determined to increase sentences for dangerous driving, which is a thoroughly good idea. The Bill is a mixture of soft and hard. It is realistic, given the circumstances, and I commend it thoroughly to the House.