Sentencing Act 2020 (Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Powers) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Debate between Baroness Sater and Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb
Tuesday 16th May 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Sater Portrait Baroness Sater (Con)
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My Lords, I share the anxieties and concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I declare my interests as set out in the register, including as a former magistrate and, at present, a life member of the Magistrates’ Association.

I appreciate that the criminal justice system is currently experiencing—as the noble Lord mentioned—“downstream pressures”, as manifested in Operation Safeguard. Indeed, as has already been said, Ministers have said that this pause gives them time to review this measure, assessing relevant data across the CJS, with a view to reinstating powers should this be supported by the evidence. Ministers, however, have also been clear that the increase to sentencing powers is not the only factor behind this pressure, and that the data on the impact is still limited. In the light of this, therefore, I question whether it can be justified for this change to be made, given the impact it will have on magistrates delivering speedier justice. Surely it would be better to make this change only if the data clearly suggested that it was a significant factor behind the increased pressure we have seen.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has stated, this change has ramifications for slowing down the justice system for victims, witnesses and defendants, not to mention the hours of training by sitting magistrates. I would be grateful to hear from my noble and learned friend the Minister more on this, specifically regarding the process, what evidence and data are needed and when this review will be concluded.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, considering that we deal with a lot of very big Bills here in your Lordships’ House, this is quite a small issue, but for me, it encapsulates the panicky and misguided way in which the Government constantly tackle big problems such as our prison population and the justice system. It is an example of their wanting a quick fix for something that they have damaged over the last 13 years of austerity and incompetence.

I cannot comment on whether six months or 12 months is right—I do not have a magistrate’s training—but I can say that we have too many people in prison and we have to stop sending so many people to prison, particularly women. We also have to be clear, of course, that people coming out of prison need help if they are not going to reoffend. You cannot fix these big problems with tiny little tweaks such as this.

I do not understand why such knee-jerk reactions happen all the time with this Government. Where is the overview or the long-term planning? Where is the coherence for dealing with these big problems? This Government have tried to fix the whole justice system on the cheap. It has not in fact been cheap, of course, because it is very expensive to keep people in prison and train magistrates, while not giving people the support they need when they come out of prison, so they go on to offend again. Why not have a longer-term plan?

This Government have got, one supposes, another year. Please could they get some expert advice on this sort of thing and not keep flailing around? One minute it is six months, the next it is 12 months and then it is back to six months again. This is not good government; it just does not make any sense to do things like this. The court system is at breaking point and the prisons are way over full, so the Government should really now be thinking about how to solve these two problems. This, I would argue, is not the way to do it. The Government have broken our justice system and are now doing tiny little tweaks to try to fix it, which simply will not work.