Today the House of Commons will debate the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The Prime Minister’s timely intervention to row back on some of the dangerous proposals in the Justice’s Secretary’s recent bill was a welcome relief.
I fully support the U-turn from the disastrous policy which would have allowed prisoners to earn 50% off their sentence for an early guilty plea. I equally support the proposal to send foreign national prisoners home after they have served the minimum tariff of their sentences, banning foreign travel for offenders serving a community order, promoting a better work ethic among prisoners and reducing the legal aid bill.
However, there are many aspects of the sentencing small print that confirm that the Prime Minister’s intervention and the U-turn from the Lord Chancellor have only ensured that the bill is now just slightly less worse than the catastrophe it would have been, had he not changed it.
During his statement in the House of Commons last Tuesday, Ken Clarke proclaimed, “the best way to reduce crime is to reduce re-offending” – something many people could sign up to. However, I am afraid that his actions simply do not match his words. His stance on indeterminate sentences show beyond all doubt that re-offending is not his priority.
I am a firm believer in the benefits of indeterminate sentences in reducing re-offending. In fact, figures from the Ministry of Justice have showed that, as of the end of the 2010 calendar year, 206 people had been released from indeterminate sentences. Of those, up until 13th September 2010 – the latest figures available – only eleven people have re-offended. That’s a re-offending rate of only 5%.
If Ken Clarke’s priority is re-offending, why on earth would he want to scrap the part of the criminal justice system which has the lowest re-offending rate? The reason is obvious, re-offending is not his priority. So what is his priority? It is the same as it has always been – cutting the number of criminals in prison. This is further highlighted in the impact assessment in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill which state that the overall impact of the proposals will result in annual savings of approximately £80 million in 2014/15 “due to a reduction in the demand for prison places of 2,650.”
As if this was not worrying enough for the law-abiding public, there are further measures in the bill which confirm that this legislation is simply window-dressing for the old, ineffective and unpopular policies.
Take for example the widely reported “mandatory” six-month sentence for thugs who use knives to threaten people. Although welcomed on the surface, a defendant could be let off if they have a ‘reasonable excuse for having the weapon on them’. This is outrageous; surely the reason someone has a knife on them becomes irrelevant if they are threatening someone with it. Also, courts will still have the discretion not to impose a custodial sentence – so much for “mandatory”.
In addition, clause 57 would increase the length of sentence that can be suspended from a maximum of 51 weeks to 2 years and removes the need to attach any community requirements. If a criminal has committed an offence that is deserving of a custodial sentence of up to two years, that is what they should receive. Furthermore – if someone is given a suspended sentence with no requirements, they will effectively not be punished at all! Is it any wonder the British public have no faith in community sentences. A criminal justice system is only effective if the public have confidence in the system and this, to me is a shining example of the measures that undermine such confidence.
In the last Parliament we voted against Labour when they allowed time spent on bail on a tag to be knocked off a prison sentence in the same way as is time on remand. At the time, Edward Garnier said that this proposal “will cause a great deal of scepticism, undermine public confidence in the justice system and make the Government look increasingly ridiculous if the court is then required to say, ‘By the way, all the time that you have spent at home in bed is time that can be taken away from your custodial sentence.’.”
I couldn’t agree more – the only difference is, I still believe this is wrong, whereas my frontbench colleague is sitting in a department that is formalising the policy. The Government are also now supporting the compulsory release of people halfway through their sentence – something else we opposed in opposition. Furthermore, the Government are also reneging on our manifesto pledge to allow magistrates the power to sentence people to up to twelve months in prison and are in fact repealing the legislation that would have allowed it.
This therefore proves that the Bill is not the rehabilitation revolution or the reduced re-offending revolution we were promised, but a release revolution which will simply catapult more criminals out on to the streets to commit more crimes.