Three newly-elected barristers all delivered maiden speeches during yesterday's debate on the Queen's Speech which highlighted the failures of criminal justice policy under the previous Labour Government.
"We have confused legislative hyperactivity with effectiveness. The sausage-factory approach that saw Criminal Justice Act after Criminal Justice Act has not resulted in a better system; in fact, it has made it a great deal worse. The law of unforeseen consequences means that the extra burden placed on the system is causing it to creak at the hinges.
"The words of politicians in this House and other places sound particularly hollow to those at the chalk face trying to grapple with the reality. We have spent too much time concentrating on the consequences of offending, instead of looking at the means of preventing it in the first place. The rhetoric of being tough on crime so loved by a former Prime Minister misses the point. It is time for us to be smart on crime, by looking at the causes of that criminality and dealing with them, lest we reap the whirlwind of social problems and increased expenditure.
"When there is no option, we must stop being spellbound by the complexity of things. Prison is there to perform three simple functions: to protect the public, to punish offenders and to offer the hope of rehabilitation. None of those important functions seems to have been properly valued, as the events of recent years bear out. It is a scandal that those who have to pass sentences in the Crown court and other places are influenced by pressures on prison numbers. It is simply unacceptable and literally a denial of justice.
"If we are to deal most effectively with criminality in our country, we need to call criminal offences crime, move away from the unproductive and costly antisocial behaviour structure and all the rhetoric surrounding it, and remember that at the root of it all, it is crime prevention and early intervention, particularly in the lives of young people, that we will see reaping real rewards, when we come to look back at our time in office. My plea today is for effective action on crime—for a bit of cleverness, rather than the rhetoric of tabloid newspapers. I look forward to, I hope, playing my part in the debates on crime and other issues that are important to the constituents I represent in the years ahead."
"Some 3,600 new criminal offences have been created in the past 13 years, a rate of about one every weekday. You will be reassured to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it is now illegal to sell a grey squirrel and to explode a nuclear bomb. Many hundreds of other pieces of legislation have been passed: 404 forms of behaviour are illegal now that were not illegal in 1997. To give one an idea of the progress—or lack thereof—whereas for most of the past 100 years there was about one criminal justice Bill per decade, there were 60 in the past decade.
"I am afraid that we have not had the progress that we would like. To give one example of that quickly, within the last several months at court, several barristers were kept waiting while prisoners refused to alight from a bus because they were worried about losing their places in an overcrowded prison system. The prison officers refused to force them off the bus, because doing so would breach their human rights. Many were kept waiting for many hours. One prisoner decided that he needed to use the facilities and was allowed to alight from the bus, go into the cells, use the facilities and go back, voluntarily, and get back on the bus, because to have forced him to do otherwise would have been a breach of his human rights. Meanwhile, many were kept waiting in court. I hope that my time in the House will help to ameliorate some of those discrepancies and disconnections that now exist in our system."
And Guy Opperman, who replaced Peter Atkinson as MP for Hexham, took up the same theme, saying that he had spent too long "watching while Home Secretaries meddle with the criminal justice system to little positive effect":
"There have been dozens of criminal justice Bills in the past 13 years, very few of which were any good. No one has introduced a prison reform Act since 1952. I, like others, have worked at the criminal Bar, prosecuting and defending in many murder trials, and I have seen enough of the inadequacies of prison life to know that wholesale reform is required. To fail to reform the Prison Service would be a crime, because we are simply not solving the problem of crime and punishment. We have doubled the prison population in the past 18 years, yet reoffending rates remain in excess of 70%. We send more people to prison than anyone else in Europe, yet we are not safer.
"I will campaign for a better focus on sentencing, rehabilitation, drug testing and simple education in prisons. It is often said that too often Governments consult but do not listen. I want to ensure that the victim has a voice in this House. I am proud of the fact that the previous Labour Government, in their wisdom, gave me two separate national awards, one for my help to victim support and one for my campaign to challenge the state on unlawful hospital closures. I expect no such generosity from my hon. Friends in this Parliament.
"People do not expect government to solve everything; in fact, in my experience, people are amazed when government does anything good at all. But we have a fresh chance, after the dark days of economic meltdown and a broken political system, to establish a new beginning. I accept that it will not be easy, but I am ambitious for my constituents and for this country."