Crime Bill faces new onslaught in Lords

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The Independent Online
The latest rebellion against the Home Secretary's law and order programme will get underway tonight during the Lords' Second Reading of the Bill to introduce mandatory tougher sentences.

Peers are not likely to flout House of Lords convention by refusing to give Michael Howard's Crime (Sentences) Bill its Second Reading. But the measure is expected to come under heavy cross-party attack.

The expected onslaught comes a week after the double defeat inflicted by the Lords on the Police Bill in the face of the Government's refusal to agree to prior judicial authorisation of bugging on private property.

The Bill proposes mandatory minimum jail terms of three years for adult, third-time burglars, seven years for adult dealers in class-A drugs and indeterminate life sentences for second-time violent or sexual offenders. Critics of the measure have included former Conservative Home Secretaries Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Baker and a list of judicial figures.

The line-up of speakers in today's debate will include the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, former Master of the Rolls Lord Donaldson, Lord Hope of Craighead, the Scottish law lord and the former law lord Lord Ackner. At the committee stage, opponents will seek to introduce an exception allowing judges not to impose mandatory sentences. Judges have warned of the futility of imprisoning for seven years inadequate drug addicts who sell small quantities of drugs to fund their own habits. Others oppose the measure as an unjustified interference by the executive to the judiciary. Lord Bingham, who as Lord Chief Justice ranks as the most senior legal peer, is expected to use his first speech in the chamber since his appointment to expand on criticisms he made in a television interview in the autumn when he called for judges to retain the right to do justice in individual cases.

He pointed out that the Bill's provision for a judge to depart from a mandatory sentence where there were "exceptional" circumstances did not meet critics' concerns "at all", because the expression had been construed narrowly.

Further controversy is in prospect over Mr Howard's plan to introduce "honesty in sentencing", by making prisoners serve the actual sentence imposed by the court.

Penal experts have warned that this would cost pounds 30m and require two new jails in addition to those already in prospect.

Mr Howard also begins battle today with a challenge before five law lords to last July's Court of Appeal ruling that he was wrong to order the boys who killed the toddler James Bulger to serve a minimum 15-year jail term.