Sentencing: 23rd May 2011

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Is the right hon. Gentleman honestly telling the House that under the tenure of the last Government there was not a serious and profound problem of overcrowding in our prisons?

Sadiq Khan
I remember that the manifesto on which the hon. Lady stood for election and won her seat stated that the Conservatives would provide the same number of prison places we would.

The Department’s impact assessment gives the game away. The sentence discount plan provides the Lord Chancellor with the lion’s share of his reduction in prison places. The impact assessment shows that £3,400 of the overall savings from the 6,000 fewer prison places that will be needed as a result of the sentencing package will come from the planned increase in the maximum ​available discount to 50%. I accept that that equates to £130 million a year, but it demonstrates that the Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Anna Soubry
Will my hon. Friend give way?

Philip Davies
No, there is not time.

That is what the Secretary of State is proposing. That is what happened to Gabrielle Browne, who sparked the debate when she questioned the Secretary of State—[Interruption.]

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I have been a Member of Parliament for a year, but I do not think that I have ever smelt such rank political hypocrisy as that which is emanating from the Opposition Benches. I practised as a criminal barrister for 16 years, just a little longer than the tenure of the last Government. During those 16 years, and particularly during my 13 years at the criminal Bar, I saw almost daily the harsh reality of their sentencing policy, a policy which led to the present chaotic state of our prisons and which neither added up nor delivered all that they claimed it would do.​

As Members may recall, Labour claimed to be tough on crime. They used to say that they were turning the key on the prison gates and bars in order to secure someone, but at the same time they could not push people out too quickly. That is why we saw the release schemes enjoyed by so many people during their time in office, and why I asked the shadow Secretary of State about overcrowding. That is the last Government’s legacy, and that is the reality of Britain’s prisons today.

What has the policy of the last Government meant in the real world in which some of us worked before we came to this place? I had clients aged 18 and 19 who were on remand, which meant that they were innocent, and in adult prisons because there were no places for them in young offenders’ institutions. I had clients who, when I asked them whether they been to see their drug worker, said that they had been unable to arrange an appointment because of the overcrowding. I had clients—as I now have constituents—who were willing to go on courses in order to be rehabilitated and educated, and who could not obtain places on those courses. That is the legacy of the Labour party. It is an absolute disgrace, and it is even more disgraceful that they are in denial about it.

Karl Turner
Does the hon. Lady agree with the policy of reducing sentences by 50%? If so, given all her professional experience during her 16 years of practice as a barrister, how does she think it can be justified, and does she think it will work?

Anna Soubry
I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. The reply to the first is yes. Being a lawyer himself, he will know two things. First, there is a good argument that in lengthy, tedious, multi-handed fraud cases, allowing a judge to give a 50% discount will do what everyone wants and crack heads together, and that it will work. Secondly, it is dishonest of Labour Members to criticise this Government for proposing a 50% increase when the present law allows it¸ as the hon. Gentleman well knows—or, at least, should know, as he is meant to be a lawyer. At present a judge has discretion, if he or she so chooses, to allow a discount of more than 50%, depending on the circumstances of the case.

My complaint, which I have expressed in public before, is about those who are excessively prescriptive and tie our judges’ hands. One of the big failings of the Labour party was that in all aspects of policy, it consistently failed to trust professionals: our teachers, our nurses and our doctors. It also failed to trust our judges. If we freed their hands and enabled them to decide the appropriate sentence given all the circumstances of a case, there would be greater honesty in our sentencing policy, and there would undoubtedly be better sentencing.

There are many issues that I would have liked to discuss, but I shall mention only two more. The first relates to events that took place last week. I say this as a woman: I find it offensive when the issue of rape is turned into a women’s issue, taken up by people and used as a political football. As I have said in this place before, some victims of rape are male, and a considerable number of victims of rape are children. It is not a women’s issue, and some of the hysteria that we heard last week did no one any favours.

Fiona Mactaggart
I suspect that the hon. Lady may be partly referring to me. Yes, there are male victims of rape—although there are fewer than one in 10—and of ​course there are child victims of rape. However, the issue affects women much more than men. That is the point I was making.

Anna Soubry
I was not referring to the hon. Lady, whom I congratulate on the work that she did in enabling not just women but children to come forward and give evidence, and indeed improving sentencing. On the issue of men, she gave the statistic of 1%. I am always a bit cynical about statistics. [Hon. Members: “It was 10%.”] Forgive me: it was 10%. I strongly suspect that, because of the stigma attached to rape, many more men are raped than come forward, but let us hope we can debate that on another occasion.

My next point highlights why many Members, certainly on the Government Benches, feel somewhat cynical when the issue of rape is raised. Can the shadow Justice Secretary explain why in this place last week the Leader of the Opposition was for the first time flanked by two women—the deputy leader of the Labour party and the shadow Home Secretary, but not the shadow Justice Secretary—when he questioned the Prime Minister about the various comments made by the Lord Chancellor? Was that a deliberate ploy? Did the Leader of the Opposition surround himself with women to make some point? I ask that question because rape is not a women’s issue; it concerns everybody, and many of us are particularly concerned about the effect it has on children.

I am greatly in favour of the Government’s sentencing proposals. Their document on the matter is radical and brave, and I agree with the many comments made by Government Members about short sentencing.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend think that the victims she has met during her career will be reassured to hear that we are proposing to cut sentences by, perhaps, a half? How will that go down with the victims my hon. Friend has met?
 
Anna Soubry
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that one of the difficulties that arise in our discussions on sentencing is when we speak about issues with a lack of information and understanding. First, let me say that victims are not all the same. They come in different shapes and sizes, and with different experiences. Sometimes—although very rarely—victims want to give evidence in order to exorcise what has happened to them. I am not for one moment talking here about rape victims, but this point applies to certain other categories of victim, such as some victims of burglary. Other victims, however, are terrified about giving evidence and would do anything rather than go into the witness box. We must therefore stop taking a broad-brush approach to sentencing, victims and criminals. That is one reason why I so strongly support our proposals: they recognise that defendants and criminals must not be treated in this broad-brush way.

I especially commend community sentences for people who have not committed the most serious offences. Tough community sentences can and do work. When faced with the prospect of another six months in custody or a tough two-year community sentence, many of my clients wanted the community sentence—
 
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo)
Order. Time is up. I call Karl Turner.​
 
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I have not got as much professional experience as her; she practised as a criminal barrister for 16 years, whereas before the general election I was a pupil barrister in my local chambers in Hull. I practised as a criminal solicitor for some time prior to that, however, and I have not met or spoken to anyone from the profession in recent days who has said the policy in question is a good one. Indeed, I have spoken to Members who sit on the hon. Lady’s side of the House, including practising barristers, who have said that this policy is simply wrong.

I have a great deal of respect for the Lord Chancellor; I think he is a very honourable man, and I am sure that the explanation for his remarks last week is that he did not choose his words very well. Indeed, to be honest, when I heard, and listened back to, his comments, I understood the point he was trying to make. The reality, however, is that some sentences that are currently on the statute book are too low. In an earlier intervention, I made a point about convictions and sentences for the offence of causing death by careless driving while over the limit—[Interruption.] I have done the maths; the hon. Member for Broxtowe might be able to correct me if she thinks she is more experienced than me. The figure for that offence is nine months. How can that possibly be fair to victims? Also, the maximum sentence for the offence of dangerous driving per se is two years’ imprisonment, but that offence often causes paralysis; it leaves people in wheelchairs, their lives ruined, yet the starting point is 12 months.

There is no evidence that the proposed policy will encourage people to plead guilty even earlier.

Anna Soubry
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
 
Karl Turner
No, I am sorry, but there is not sufficient time.

There is no evidence to support this proposal. I suspect that the Prime Minister will kick this bonkers idea into the long grass pretty soon. Drop it now.